Much was written and spoken about Ted Kennedy— the good, the bad and the ugly— following his death on August 25th. Then Kennedy added his own posthumous take, in True Compass, a memoir that hit the bookstores last month, a mere 20 days after his passing.
It seems that the general consensus on his legacy, and one with which we would tend to concur, might best be summed up in a line— this metaphor of our own making:
Ode On A Wall In Beverly Hills
Wall of mottled brick
Your concrete caught
Mid-ooze and held
Forever fast. Who left
This job so undone
For want of a few more
Passings of the trowel?
The sunlight now tells
Tales in lumpy shadows
Upon your face. One so
Laid bare to the open sky
And to those who would
Throw stones; judge
Books by their covers.
A face someone said
Will just have to do
And sent you out
To suffer the slings
And arrows of out-
Back In The Car
Last month we were treated to an essay by Beverly Doran,on the implications of driving a car too late in life.(SEPTEMBER, 2009 MUSE-LETTER) Wherein, one is judged not for who they are, but for who they are assumed to be. In her case… too old. And perhaps no longer up to the task. Though the piece also touched on some assumptions regarding gender roles in our post-World War II history.
It got us to thinking of our own life experience of, conversely, not driving early enough. We reprise an essay we wrote on the subject almost twenty years ago, as it would still seem to have relevance today, if personal observations are of any measure. Submitted for your perusal, as Rod Serling would say…
Ego, Id and Car
The car has never played a meaningful role in my life. Though I now own one, it is a possession devoid of passion. The extent of expectations from the arrangement, is that it get me from point “A” to point “B” in reasonable comfort and safety.
This aloofness is actually a marked improvement over my previous position in the matter. In the 60’s, I was almost militantly “anti-car.” Being a native New Yorker who watched his city become increasingly noisy, dirty, overcrowded and unaffordable, the car —to my Age-of-Aquarius sensibilities—was just one more blight on the scene.
Though in retrospect, my stance was not simply a product of ecological or sociological convictions. It was at least in part, a residue of regret for the absence of a common rite of passage from my life.
At age 16, when most kids first experience that heady feeling of a freedom that comes from getting a license and borrowing the “old man’s wheels,” economics, and indeed the very absence of an old man on the premises (let alone a car), tended to dampen any hopes I might have had on this front. And as my high school did not include a hands-on Drivers Ed program, (hell, it wasn’t even coed) my first associations with the car, were never naturally rooted, so to speak.
At some point well after my seventeenth birthday, a sympathetic uncle did step in to try to fill the void. His heart was in the right place—his car wasn’t. He lived somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey, and the distant between us proved insurmountable in trying to schedule lessons. And as my permit expired, so too did my desire to learn how to drive.
This in turn, not only cut me off from a de rigueur adolescent experience, but was a hindrance to enjoyment of related pastimes as well. (Wink, wink.) It is not difficult to surmise that the sexual awakenings that often occurred in that den of iniquity, The Back Seat, were experiences lost to me during the formative years. Lost too, though hardly on a par with back-seat bliss, was the visceral pleasure that guys seem to get from being hip to the minutia of car stats and data. To this day, I could not tell you the make, model and year of an approaching car, if it ran me over. Save for obvious differences in color, they all tend to look alike to me.
Five years would pass, as my disenfranchisement with “the car” would continue.
Then at the urging of a girlfriend from “The Island” with access to her father’s grungy car, I agreed to take a second stab at trying to overcome, what had now developed into almost an obstinacy about getting a license. But this effort too, was doomed to failure. I cannot think of anything more ill conceived than a man, having a woman with whom he is intimately involved, try to teach him how to drive. Freud would have had a field day with this one.
The particulars are unimportant, other than to say it was a contest marked by name calling, pettiness, defensiveness and sexual tension. Not surprisingly, I came away from the experience without a license. And…without a girl.
This estrangement between man and machine would last for another decade.
As a sidebar to all of this, when put under the gun as to why I didn’t drive, I would offer a smattering of celebrities in my defense, who were similarly “afflicted”: Alfred Hitchcock, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem and Father O’Brien, the parish priest. Empirical evidence that I was not some sort of social misfit or total loser.
But finally, at the advanced age of 32, almost by accident (no pun intended), I made peace with this…thing, and got a license.
I was stage managing a play in Greenwich Village, during which in the course of its run, the cast and crew would go out afterwards for a bite each night. Then a good friend in the group, would drive me home. One evening, though fully aware of my “affliction,” he offhandedly asked me if I would like to drive. Without hesitation— and perhaps filled with the bravado and good cheer that comes from theater life— I said “sure.”
After about five minutes of navigating his Cadillac, the size of a gondola, throughout the Venetian streets of the village— in the dark— and without incident, I rhetorically asked aloud: “Why don’t I don’t this?” To my surprise, there was no longer an answer.
After a few weeks of post-midnight driving lessons, in a big car on small streets, it came to pass that I had finally joined the ranks of Driverhood. All that was missing was a tap on each shoulder with a sword.
A recounting of this story over the years, has invariably elicited expressions of disbelief. Especially here in L.A., a city whose unbridled love for the automobile is legendary, if not fetishistic. The male psyche, in particular, cannot comprehend how one could willingly practice vehicular celibacy for so long. Especially as the car has so permeated our culture and way of life: “See the USA, in your Chevrolet…” once sang Dinah Shore.
I remember soon after the start of the War in the Gulf (aka “Desert Storm”), USA Today, in profiling the suddenly famous Patriot missile, stated that at 17 feet 5 inches long, it was three inches longer than a Cadillac Sedan de Ville. As though this was the most universal and illuminating context in which to put this sort of data. Naturally, this presumed illumination left me in the dark.
And perhaps in the dark is where I’ll stay. In the final analysis, it is unlikely that I’ll do anything dramatic to ever get up to speed (again, no pun intended) on this car stuff. It’s not just the implicit futility of teaching an old dog new tricks. My personal history has shown me to be, if nothing else, a late bloomer. It’s just that there always seems to be a more pressing matter. To wit: I’m currently more interested in the motor skills of my children than those of my engine. Although, don’t I owe it to myself one of these days, to at least find out just how many miles to the gallon I’m getting?