Okay, so I came to driving a little late.
Having grown up in New York City, I had no reason to learn to drive. And I went to college in Chicago, so again no reason to drive – until you realized that without transportation, you are essentially a prisoner of Hyde Park, which is not without its own peculiar charm, but please.
So in 1981 I decided to get a license. I was conveniently dating someone with a car and could practice. A ship pilot’s license would have been more appropriate since the car, a 1974 Ford Country Squire station wagon – replete with “wood” paneling on the side – was about half a block long. I practiced in parking lots, drove on lake shore drive and tooled around Hyde Park. Lisa had decorated the dashboard of the car with a ton of Strawberry Shortcake and Josie and the Pussycats stickers – completely appropriate in a U of C sarcastic kind of way – but a little bizarre by normal standards for a 22-year old med student.
The day came for my road test in a DMV on the far south side of Chicago. My examiner was a humorless black man in his 50s, who was clearly not really enthusiastic about me, my funny car, or all the crazy stickers. Luckily I passed (although I received bad marks for “poor lane recognition.”)
So armed with my new license, I promptly borrowed Lisa’s car and drove to New York. It was a straight shot east on I-80 – how hard could that be? I didn’t like driving at night, but I figured if I left at 4am, and drove straight through I could get to New York before nightfall.
Things were looking pretty good through Indiana and Ohio. Until in the middle of a big bridge (no shoulder of course), I ran out of gas. I wrote a little “Ran out of gas, be back soon” note and hitched a ride to the next rest stop – 5 miles down the interstate. I had the incredible honor to be picked up by the Sitting President of the Ohio Little League, driving his big old Lincoln. He made me sit in the back with all the little baseball trophies. It was pretty surreal, but then again the entire experience was a little bit outside my experience.
So I got a gallon of gas, except they didn’t have a portable gas tank I could borrow. Instead I got kind of an open tin can bucket kind of thing. Luckily the state troopers were hanging out there and gave me a ride back to my car. So how to get the gas from the open tin can bucket thing into the car? That was back in the days when motor oil came in cans and you had to have one of those spout things. I was such a smarty, I used that to get the gas in the tank. Unfortunately about half the gas spilled on me and the car, but I got a good third of a gallon in the car. I stepped in, turned the key and vroom, the engine came to life. I waved to the troopers and the troopers waved to me and they took off. I drove on until I got off the bridge and about half a mile later a funny thing happened.
I ran out of gas again.
I hadn’t taken into account the fact that the fuel line on the 1974 Country Squire Station Wagon is probably 14 feet long, and probably holds a few gallons. So, back out into the August midday heat, I hitched another ride to the rest stop and this time I put a full 5 gallons in the tin can bucket thing. The troopers were gone by that point and I couldn’t get anybody to give me a ride (what with the open gas can and all) so I had to walk. Every time a car went by, I could practically see the cigarette leaving somebody’s hand, sailing gracefully through the air and landing plop into the middle of my open gas can.
Immolation in Ohio.
I did finally get back to the car, managed to decant about 3 of the 5 gallons into the tank and then finally got on my way. The rest of the trip was uneventful, except for the fact that this little running out of gas caper had set me back by about four hours, and my plans to get to the city before nightfall, went down along with the with the setting sun.
Crossing the Delaware Water Gap into New Jersey at sunset was aesthetically quite lovely, but also completely terrifying because night fell and the only thing that terrified me more than driving at night were the giant trucks on the highway.
Remember that I basically learned to drive in the quaint parking lots and streets of Hyde Park, so knew nothing of how to drive on a highway. I kept seeing all these signs saying no trucks in the far left lane, so I thought I’m going to stay in that lane because I hate trucks. Unfortunately nobody told me about the whole passing lane thing. Unwilling to go faster than the then 55 MPH limit, I drove through the entire state of New Jersey with drivers tailgating me, honking at me, flashing their brights at me, and generally giving me a lot of abuse. A state trooper even pulled along side me and flashed one of those 25 zillion watt searchlights into my face. They kept going I guess because rather than seeing some drunken housewife (remember 1974 Country Squire Station Wagon), they saw a terrified 19-year old kid white-knuckling it into New York.
Once onto the isle of Manhattan things got better and aside from having to park about 3 miles away from my apartment on the upper east side I was in good shape.
Until I remembered about alternate side of the street parking.