An Aging City Kid Learns to Drive Away From It All

This is the story of a guy driving a little gray Volkswagen on a late summer afternoon. He rolls along the Palisades Parkway, the sun and breeze blowing through the window, around his ears, which protrude from the sides of his back-turned baseball cap. Art Tatum is in the tape deck. The Volkswagen purrs along the road, which bends with the Hudson River coastline. He’s 28.

Everywhere else, children pop out of the womb craving a driver’s license. Kids in New York never feel the need. When we were old enough, we hauled knapsacks half our size to the bus stop and held on for dear life as the thing careened through Central Park and threw us out in front of the pale yellow Woolworth’s on 79th Street and Broadway.

Later on, we became tall and obnoxious and ruled the morning bus food chain. We shouted and banged our way through the brief morning commute. My parents condemned me to a school bereft of chicks. It was hard to impress them with a bus pass. On weekends, my friends and I slugged beers at McSherry’s and in each other’s apartments. In our last year of high school, we discovered a semicircular bench just inside Central Park. We carried in our bags of six-packs and anchored for the evening.

When I visit friends outside the city, my options are simple: wait in their houses until they drive home or get dropped off in a mall for hours while they go to work.

I’ve considered spending the afternoon in the trunk.

It’s midweek, early afternoon, and he is virtually alone on the road. Checking his two blind spots, he signals and shifts into the left lane. He’s headed for the seven lakes in Harriman State Park.

Flash back three months, when he was in the car with Bert Gibbs: “I go there on Sundays mostly,” said Mr. Gibbs. “After working six days a week, you just want to stay home and sleep, but I go there fishing on Sundays once in a while. I met a couple of people, mostly females, teaching them how to drive and we go fishing on a … a what do you call it, a platonic basis. You go out with an idea of catching fish, but if you don’t catch fish, it’s O.K. You see, it’s more you go out with an idea for a day’s pleasure, a picnic, an outing.”

Mr. Gibbs, 67, was my driving instructor. For 20 years, he has been sitting on a small pillow in his car. It helps with the accumulated soreness of hour upon seated hour. A rumpled driving school T-shirt and jeans were his work clothes. He steered around the city, past pizza parlors and Wall Street firms.

“There are a lot of people who do this for a few months and then find something else. They just sit on the side and say, ‘Turn here, turn there.’ But it’s a job to me. It’s not like I have anywhere else to go. I’m out on the street, not locked up in an office. I don’t get fired. I’m a loner to begin with, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do this. I’m not a hermit, but I’m a loner in a crowd of people. I don’t really associate with people. Once in a while on the road test line I’ll say hi to someone, but that’s it.”

He had been reading John O’Hara. A copy of A Rage to Live was on the next seat. Where he last put it down, the Tates are near divorce. Grace Tate has been caught screwing Roger Bannon, an Irish contractor. She and the kids board a train to Cape May for the weekend. Sidney Tate, her husband, a bit of a lost soul, gets in the Mercer and motors out of Fort Penn with no destination in mind. Unlike our hero, Sidney enjoys an overnight stay at a cathouse.

My friend had suggested Xanax. My shrink left a message offering to call in a prescription for a “gentle sedative.” At the very least, it would make for an interesting road test.

I had already failed the thing twice, both times in Red Hook, Brooklyn, once for a stop sign problem, the other for pulling out of my parking space without watching for traffic. Either the testers commuted or Red Hook itself is rich in stubby, unpleasant women.

Upon my second effort I was once again ambushed by a Red Hook special. It was a nice day and I was leaning against an iron fence watching a crowd of children in lemon colored T-shirts playing on a grass patch of a park. My mind went back to a day months earlier in the D.M.V. office. I was waiting on an endless line to take the written test, my eye caught by school kids playing an impromptu game of softball in the afternoon sun. The fellow behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Ah, to be young again.”

And that’s when I saw her coming toward me: a Jell-O-y creature in D.M.V.-issue sky blue shirtsleeves, a clipboard between her sausagey fingers. Of course, sitting in a car eight hours a day for years is hardly great for one’s figure, so I fear in this case it may come with the territory.

We rolled over the quiet streets. Her responses to polite small talk were gruntlike; as minimalist were her movements: a stab at the air indicates right, another stab indicates left. As I drove, I guessed that over the years, something odd had occurred: a kind of tactile vocabulary had supplanted her oral skills. Indeed, as I floundered down the street, she made another, similar stab, which I thankfully took to signify “parallel park.” Pulling out of the space was, however, where I made my own tactile error, neglecting to signal and narrowly missing a miniature old lady struggling to haul several shopping bags across the street. It was then that the test was over, for she instructed me verbally to return to the line and Bert.

My third and final test took me to Staten Island, where a nice man let me pass.

Driving alone for the first time, he pulls into Harriman State Park and cuts the motor. Unsuitably dressed-jeans, T-shirt, sneakers-he walks past women at a picnic table spinning a cage of bingo balls, down some steps onto the beach. Teenagers man the grill. He grabs a burger. The sand slopes way down to the water. The kids swim and run back up to their parents, who lay baking on beach towels.

Carrying his shoes, he walks to the water line, past the lifeguard chair. The swimming area is circumscribed by blue and white styrofoam blocks strung together. The remainder of his walk is unobscured, just the mustard sand and the occasional pointy shell to watch for. He has reached the end of the beach, not so much the tip of a crescent, as in postcards from the Caribbean, but the beginning of the woods.

Bert, Zen master of driving, and his band of lady ex-students must have thumped through the growth to one of the boulders around the lake’s circumference. Maybe it wasn’t so platonic after all.

Doing 60 on the way back down Palisades Parkway, the radio blasting “Crazy Train,” he rests his elbow on the lip of the window. He eases down to 30 as the blinking arrow signals “right lane closed 100 yards.” Ten minutes later, idle in a single lane, he swears, sticks his head out the window, sees the endless snake of cars, no doubt other cursing drivers at the wheel. A traffic jam! He stretches an arm over the passenger seat and happily whines.