Every teenager dreams of the day they get their driver’s license. It’s a right of passage that ranks up there with ones’ losing their virginity and the first time you got drunk. For me, getting my license and buying my first car with the money I had earned working at the Willowbrook Mall’s Bowery Lighting was like crossing the finishing line of a race while carrying a monkey on your back.
At the time, my most recent experience driving had included taking my mother’s car out while she and my stepdad vacationed in Puerto Rico and being told by my driving instructor to “Slow the fuck down.”
My first car cost me four hundred dollars. A two-tone blue 77′ Ford Maverick with an Eight-Track player. It wasn’t the Mustang I had my eyes on, the one that was eventually wrecked when an errant tire coming off Route-23 landed on its hood and went through its windshield, but it was mine.
I was so excited about pulling into the school’s parking lot while some rock anthem blasted over the speakers. Then my overprotective mother stepped in like a cop with an ax to grind and told me that, partly due to the distance of my high school and my lack of experience driving, I’d be taking the school bus or hitching a ride with a more experienced driver.
Though there was nothing, I could do or say to right this blockade to my inherent right of passage. I would find a way to get around this carnage of justice during the weekends. Having made many friends in a short time, I lived in Jersey. I had a few who lived within my mom’s imagined loop of territories I could travel.
Being that I had already spent much of my free time at a nearby friend’s home, we made an agreement that he would cover me if she’d ever call. Being that this was before the invention of cell phones and pagers, I kind of wonder how that would work if she ever did choose to call. “Oh, James said he had to drop a deuce. I’ll tell him to call you after, well, you know.”
Or “Oh, he just left to pick up some beer.” Luckily, she never did call.
On the weekends that I did manage to take that Ford for a spin, I often found myself racing down Route 3 South towards the Lincoln Tunnel and straight into Manhattan. The 9th avenue and Canal street traffic was, at least for me, the best education a young driver could ever get. The lanes seemed slimmer, the congestion multiplied, and the yellow taxies that darted in and out as if they were in a pinball machine. It’s a wonder I lived, let alone avoided any significant pileups.
Nine months later, upon graduation from high school, I would use that same car and the driving skills I had learned, to move back to Queens, where I would continue to drive that two-tone blue tank for another two or three years. Looking back, I might have wanted fully to declare my independence, if not chosen a safer outlet for my need for speed. Yet, my teen years were the best time to fight for my freedom.