These days, I drive as little as possible. I moved just over a year ago to within walking distance of my school, and I walk on any day that weather allows. Since I live in New Jersey, it bears little explanation that my state of mind has greatly improved since my transition from a dozen hours per week in my car to less than one.
When I was a young teen in the early 1980’s, however, I lived in a town called Jackson, which was making a transition from rural-delivery wilderness to bedroom community. Everything was far apart, and I was sent to an excellent private high school over twenty miles away. I set an objective early during my freshman year to attain oneness with my Holy Trinity: a driver’s license, a functional car, and an income that would keep my vehicle fueled.
One step toward all of this was my first driving lesson. My instructor was Jack, a twitchy, fair-skinned, red-haired, blue-eyed fellow in his late thirties, clearly of Irish descent. Another student driver and Jack arrived at my house in a tan 1983 AMC Concord to pick me up as her lesson was still in progress. She drove well, but Jack struck me as inveterately nervous. I could certainly imagine the hazards of his job. Teaching teenagers to drive in New Jersey would take nerve, if not for the potential of outright accidents, than certainly for the looming risk and the constant close approaches of calamity.
On the shoulder of Interstate 195 in Howell, Jack asked the student driving to pull over and let me begin my first-ever session behind the wheel of an automobile. It was thoroughly uneventful for the first ten minutes. We soon took an exit from the highway, drove several back roads, and made right and left turns as needed. I was a natural. I suppose that there was some possibility for intervention in case anything were to jump in front of us: Jack’s side of the car had an extra brake pedal.
After we dropped off the other student, Jack assessed my driving.
“Gee, ya know? You drive pretty good. Ya got the signals…you’re checking the mirrors. You don’t drive too fast. Ya don’t drive too slow. Right down the middle of the lane. Jeez! You don’t know how bad it can get with some of you kids. But you? You’re arright. You’re arright, kid.”
He felt comfortable introducing me to a road with more traffic: Route 35.
I recall we got onto that highway perhaps a little north of Belmar. There were shopping centers on both sides of the road, and it was early afternoon on a gray October day. Drizzle had slicked the roads. Traffic was heavy, but I had taken naturally to driving and felt quite the veteran after fifteen minutes.
Naturally, our car had clear markings to advertise the driving school and to indicate the presence of a student driver behind the wheel. Did I mention that all of this took place in New Jersey? Where drivers are impatient? Where no one wants to be stuck behind a student driver? Especially on Route 35?
One such driver in a light blue Chevy Malibu was waiting at a red light and saw us coming. I had just checked my rearview mirror and seen that there were no cars behind me, and I was about ten lengths behind the car in front of me. We were traveling at about fifty miles per hour, somewhat under the speed limit, but as fast as traffic would allow. I felt comfortable in my roadspace. In my peripheral vision, I could see that Jack had a relaxed posture, his arms folded. He was chattering about his happy hour the day before at a bar called Hart’s.
Just then, the Malibu pulled abruptly in front of us. Jack and I both slammed on the breaks, and due to the damp road surface, we went into a skid, the front of the car creeping right. I steered into the drift and righted the car. We had dropped to about twenty miles per hour, and since I had known there were no cars behind us, I knew we would not be rear-ended. Perfect execution. I felt proud of myself and looked over to Jack for a word of congratulations.
Instead, I saw his eyes bulging out in rage as he pointed to the Malibu and looked at me.
“Get on his ass!”
Incredulous, I hesitated.
“Come on! On his ass! Now!”
What could I do? He was the instructor. I commenced the tailgating procedure I had seen executed countless times growing up in the Garden State.
At half a car length, I considered the maneuver successful.
I complied. Just then, the Malibu veered to the right and onto an exit toward a shopping center. Its lane ran parallel to ours for a few hundred yards. This was the opportunity Jack needed in order to demonstrate a critical element in driver response and assertiveness.
He instructed me to keep even with the Malibu, then he rolled down his window, leaned his upper body out, placed his hands megaphone-style around his mouth, and yelled, “Asshole!”
This was my first driving lesson.