Tuesday I had my first driving lesson at the Chinatown driving school. I went to the office, where the office manager directed me to Forsythe Street where the teacher would be waiting in a red car.
I found the car, and there was a 60-ish Chinese man behind the wheel waiting. He motioned me to get in, and as I got in and fastened my seatbelt he said,
“Well, I’ve driven before, but let’s make believe I’ve never been behind the wheel before, OK?” He grunted and put the car in gear and drove off. I was going to ask him his name since he hadn’t introduced himself but thought the better of it. If he wanted to be friends he would have asked me, wouldn’t he have?
So, since he has no name and didn’t smile and was a late middle-aged Chinese man, I took to thinking of him as Mr. No, in honor of the infamous Dr. no of James Bond fame. He does actually resemble Joseph Weisman a bit.
We drove across Grand Street and turned south to Cherry Street, I don’t remember the street we turned on. He found and empty spot at the curb and stopped the car. He got out and motioned for me to take the driver’s seat.
He took a sign from the trunk that said STUDENT DRIVER and put it in the rear window. I was kind of hoping for one of those big signs on the roof, but I guess you get what you pay for.
I got in and put on my seat belt.
“Check the mirror,” Mr. No said. I did so.
“Look here,” he added, pointing to the gearshift.
“Put foot on the brake, then shift like this,” he explained as he disengaged the stick and moved it from park to drive.
“P is park, R is reverse, D is drive. OK?”
“Got it,” I said. I put the car in drive and cranked the wheel to pull out.
We went straight for a block and just before we reached the corner he said, “right turn.”
So it started, right turn, left turn. I was a little nervous, and being totally unfamiliar with the car, I would step on the brake just a little too hard at times. This would draw an angry rebuke from Mr. No.
“No, no, no! Don’t step on brake too hard! Don’t make sudden stop!”
“Got it.” I said. But that’s easier said than done. A few more sudden stops and I though the guy was going to have apoplexy. I picked the right name for him, he said NO quite a lot, and even grabbed the steering wheel a few times. No Confuisian wisdom from this guy.
After a while I couldn’t wait for the 45 minutes to be over. I kept looking at the dashboard clock and counting the minutes as we made left turn, right turn around the same five square block area.
He directed me to Delancey Street, and that was a little scary, but I got us back to Forsythe Street in one piece.
When we parked he showed me what to do with my foot.
“Look, look here,” he said pointing at his own foot that was resting on the dual brake on his side.
“Only top move, understand? Only top!” Don’t lift whole foot, only move top! OK?”
OK, lesson learned. I practiced moving my toes from the gas to the brake for a bit. It made my calf muscle even tenser than it already was. I got out of the red Corolla and went back to talk to the erstwhile Mai, who made and hour and a half appointment for Friday. My heart sank. If 45 minutes was difficult, what was and hour and a half with Mr. No gonna be like?
So yesterday I got in the car with Mr. No, who still wasn’t interested in telling me his name or knowing mine. We drove over to Bialystoker Street (I think it’s only the corner that’s called that) and switched seats. I buckled in, checked my mirror, and put the car in gear. This time my brake and gas control was a lot better, there was less teeth sucking and sighing coming from Mr. No. It was a while before I drew a rebuke, for making a turn too soon.
“What did I do wrong?
“You turn too soon! You cut the yellow line!”
“Sorry,” I said with my most charming smile. No reaction, just the same old dour face he wears when he’s not sucking his teeth or sighing. I felt like stepping on the gas and then slamming on the brake to scare the shit out of him, and then treating him to my biggest grin and saying,
At one point we turned onto a side street and there was a big truck blocking the whole street.
“Go back, go back,” he said. I put my foot on the brake and put the gear on “R,” excited to be going backwards for the first time. The last time I’d done this was in 1982 when I borrowed a girlfriend’s car without permission and I had to put it back in the same place. I thought I could figure it out pretty easy but I was wrong.
The car didn’t move so I gave it a little gas. This galvanized Mr. No into action.
“No gas! No gas!” He shouted as he stepped on his brake. I managed to back out and turn the car onto the other street without further incident.
Eventually our time was up, and it wasn’t as bad as the first time since I was getting better at the braking and turning. We drove back to Chrystie Street and I was a little timid on some of the turns, which drew shouts of “go go go!”
This made me even more nervous and I screwed up the turn on Grand Street, stepping on the gas when I should have stepped on the brake. He slammed on his brake and shouted “No gas! No gas!”
When I got out of the car on Forsythe street he didn’t even look at me, and my right leg was so tense and stiff I really didn’t care.
I thought it was a successful lesson, I felt like Private R. E. Lee Prewitt in from Here to Eternity, in the scene where he’s taken to the stockade for the first time.
He is taken in to meet the Stockade commander by two large guards wielding scrub hoe handles. Every time he made a mistake, like saluting the commander, (prisoners are not allowed to salute) he would get a scrub hoe handle in the kidneys. As time progressed he got less pokes because he was a fast learner.
Since I got fewer no’s and less teeth sucking yesterday, I think that’s progress.
All images downloaded from the internet.