Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Even though I was never much good at math, the first thing to pop into my head when I contemplated it was an equation:
(X + car) NY traffic = Z
X = family member
Z = the driving experience (which, depending on the variable X, can indeed vary widely)
I guess, as a late-bloomer in the driver's license sweepstakes and an even later first-time car owner, I don't see the act of driving in the same way the rest of my family does.  Being in the car with my mom, my dad, and my brother this time around was an experience, for certain.  It only happened a couple of times, the most memorable being when they were headed back to the airport on that artery from hell known as the Van Wyck Expressway, and I was a helpless passenger and captive audience for their road show.  Traffic was at a fever pitch, a couple of drivers decided to follow the ambulances passing us by on the shoulder - "That's ILLEGAL," someone in the car nearly shouted at the ambulance chasers, I can't remember who - and then, further up the road, someone in the left lane decided to change lanes regardless of whether or not there was a car there, and the car that was forced into the shoulder to avoid a wreck was ours.  The scream that came from my mother was enough to give me a heart attack, and I first thought she was suffering from one, but once I got over the initial shock, it was simply a lot of blood-vessel-busting anger at the lane-changing offender.  As she directed multiple birds at the guy who nearly held my family back from their Delta flight home and shouted a bunch of curses through the closed windows while I tried to calm her down, Dad moved the car back onto the Van Wyck and we continued making our way slowly up the road.

Much as I love my family, getting behind the wheel once we got to the terminal was a relief.  I made my way back to my grandparents' house going through neighborhoods we'd haunted some when Dan and I had lived in Queens: Corona, Elmhurst, Middle Village, and on to Woodhaven Boulevard and (relatively) cheaper gas to fill up the car before heading to the Belt Parkway and Grandma's.  My grandmother got behind the wheel to take us to a South Shore playground, where the little guy frolicked on monkey bars and swings while we suffered the high winds in the sunniest spots we could find.  An hour of that was more than enough.  The drive back featured a few of my grandma's less-than-5 MPH turns from one street to another, and when some impatient jerk decided honking his horn wasn't enough and passed her too fast going into her subdivision, the curses came flying again, only from a different source. I just had to shake my head.

Later that same night, more lone driving nirvana, this time in the Nissan my grandpa drives, which has a keyless ignition that scares my grandma so, she made my grandpa take it to pick up my parents and brother from the airport despite my dad's protestations at the smallness of the car and its trunk space.  I took the Cross Island to the Grand Central Parkway to visit a friend in Astoria I haven't seen in ages.  After we caught up in all too brief a time, I got back on the Grand Central and chanced the Van Wyck, which was moving well at 11 at night, but not well enough for the driver of a sporty black Mercedes ahead of me who tried to weave through traffic and ended up impatiently weaving on a much smaller scale in the left lane before finding an opening to the right in which he could shoot in and let the horsepower fly.  I mentally will people like that to keep calm, and I'd like to think it worked, but it was like watching ADD on wheels.  But that's driving in New York, and it's better to accept it and move away from it rather than try to direct it from your car.

The seasoned pro, however, is my grandpa, who turns ninety next year and was driving for two years before he got his license (which he got after he first flunked the driver's test because of all the bad habits he'd learned in those pre-license years).  The man is having trouble seeing as well as he used to at night, true, and having my parents and brother in the car with him on a rainy, dark night, yelling at him to get off the lines in the road  would be difficult for anybody to endure (okay, so, he probably turned down his hearing aids when they got in the car), but he reportedly drove my aunt back into Manhattan just fine after the first seder night, and he did all right taking us to the Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn despite my less-than-exact recall of where to exit the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

One particular wrong turn of his was reminiscent of his being behind the wheel when I was a kid: he missed the median in the Houston suburbs and ended up turning into oncoming traffic, and he did the same in downtown Brooklyn, where there was fortunately no traffic coming at us when he turned. My impulse to yell as I did when I was a kid (Grandpaaa, you're going the wrong waaaay!!!) was tamped down by the need to not scare the heck out of my son in the back of the car.  We negotiated around the median, weaved through some pedestrians and got on the right side of the road.  He told my grandma the next day what happened and she gave him a good scolding about how oblivious he could be...but don't we all have some of that going on?  Constant vigilance is always the key with good driving, but sometimes, one just can't help one's natural tendencies.  My grandpa sees a median sometimes at one edge of a road with many lanes, and it doesn't register as an indication of a divider to him - especially if he doesn't know the way too well.  Is it time for him to hang up his license?  Is it time for my grandma to take a cold, hard look at her less-than-5 MPH turns and hang it up as well?  Do I really want to confront them with their mortality like that yet, when they already have many reminders of it coming at them every day?

What I do know is that Grandpa, having never even heard of the Transit Museum before I directed him there, likes it a lot and wants to return, but he won't be taking the Long Island Rail Road, the buses, or the subways to get there.  Old habits die hard...and he will remember that wrong turn.  It won't happen again.  And on a future visit, I will be there with him when he turns to me and says, "I got it that time!"  When he doesn't get it is when I'll really worry.

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