Thursday, December 17, 2015

Have Pillows, Will Travel

My lifelong friend Ruth is allowing me to practice driving in her 2003 green Honda Accord. "I have to be able to see over the steering wheel," I tell her. She raises the driver's seat as as high as it can go.

I remove two pillows from my shopping bag, place them on the seat, and then hop atop. "Not yet," I say, balling up my puffy jacket, and adding it to the small tower.

"Perfect," I say.

I turn on the ignition, and pull out of the parking lot of Calo Restaurant and into Clark St. en route to Ruth's condo in Evanston. This will be my first time at a wheel, after just passing the road test a week ago and renewing my license. Gratefully, I am at ease. I had owned Hondas for most of my adult life and although it has been more than two years since I drove any car, I feel at home.

But, this was not how the day was supposed to go. Instead of Ruth's Honda, I had planned to drive a spiffy red 2015 VW Golf from the garage of the Sheraton Hotel to our restaurant meeting place. I picked the Golf from the rental agency's website because I wanted a hatchback with rear seats that fold down and offer extra visibility for backing up.

I was desperate to have my first drive go smoothly, so on Monday, the day before my Tuesday reservation; I played the role of a bank robber casing the joint. First, I clocked the time it would take to walk from my apartment to the hotel -- 10 minutes.

After twirling through the revolving door, I studied my printed instructions: "Go to level P1. Walk out of the waiting area and you will see our cars along the north wall." My quarry -- as precious as a safe filled with treasury bonds -- was a standout among the bland sedans along the wall.

Outside the hotel, I located the exit from the garage, and then recited "left on Park St., right on Illinois, follow the cars to Lake Shore Drive, exit on Foster, right on Clark St., left to Calo parking lot." (I had debated taking surface streets rather than the Drive, but I was eager to challenge myself.)

The following day -- Tuesday, the morning of my virgin drive -- I left my apartment at exactly 10:20 for my 10:30 a.m. reservation. I was carrying a Uniqlo shopping bag with two pillows I had inherited from my dear, departed friend, Judy, who I had assigned the role of guardian angel.

I entered the elevator, pressed P1, exited the waiting area, and approached the Golf. My membership card scanned the window shield sticker; I opened the front door and placed Judy's pillows on the driver's seat. I tossed my backpack on the passenger's side, and then opened the rear door to lower the back seats.

The two pillows weren't enough to lift me above the steering wheel, so I added my puffy jacket; still not enough. I removed my cellphone and water bottle from my backpack, squished it atop the pile, and pounced on. My heart was beating fast and my mouth was dry. Gulps of water drained the bottle.

The ignition key was latched to the right turn handle, but I was able to insert it. I turned it; interior dashboard lights came on, but no engine noise. I tried again, and again, and again, and then sought out garage personnel.

"Dead battery," said the guy who came to my rescue.

I checked my watch. I had spent 30 minutes in my attempt to start the VW, and would be late for my lunch date if I didn't give up right then. I couldn't believe that all of my preparation, my reconnaissance mission, my two days of pumped-up courage, and my visions of success, proved as useless as the battery.

The company agreed to cancel my three-hour reservation ($41.75 including taxes and fees), and offered a half hour of driving credit. I used a Lyft shared-ride ($15.00) to get me to the restaurant on time.

When I arrived, still carrying the shopping bag and pillows, I proposed using Ruth's car to salvage my practice day. And that's how after lunch, I safely drove her green Honda to her Evanston condo. After hugging her goodbye, I took the Purple to the Red to the Brown lines back to Chicago.

Next time I seek driving practice, I'll skip the car rental and take the three trains from my place to Ruth's. Or, perhaps you have an idle car and a destination?

Have pillows; will travel.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


It takes three pillows to lift me high enough to see above the Kia Soul's dashboard. "I had great visibility in my last car, a Honda Fit," I tell Michelle, as she hauls a trio from the trunk. "I'll be more confident if I can see both front fenders."

"Pedestrians, too," Michelle says, "you have to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Check left, front, and right before proceeding or turning, think 'left, front, and right."'

I repeat, "left, front, and ride," hoping her mantra will guarantee that any walkers and riders in my path remain unscathed.

Michelle, who is young enough to be a granddaughter, has picked me up at 6:00 in the morning for my first driving lesson. After two hours of instruction and practice, she will accompany me to the DMV, lead me through the lines, and then wait while a tester takes over the passenger seat.

It was just four months ago, on my 77th birthday, when I decided to let my driver's license expire. I reasoned that since I hadn't driven for nearly two years, I wouldn't bother with the renewal and instead apply for a state identification card. After all, with my two legs, shared rides -- Uber and Lyft -- and the CTA, I had competently managed my travel needs.

Recently, the lack of a license started to nag: I felt my decision to forgo renewal had prematurely aged me. And the only way to reverse that discomfort was to get it back. But, first I'd had to pass a road test.

I was certain any licensed friend would be willing to escort me to the DMV, and then turn over their car for the test, but I was too skittish for that route. If I could take a few lessons from an accredited driving school, and then use their auto for the road test, I was certain my chances of passing would improve. A search on Yelp led me to the Nova Driving School, to Michelle, and to the three pillows between my tush and the Kia's front seat.

In 1952, when my dad first taught me how to drive, I pulled pillows from our plastic-covered sofa to prop me in his four-door Buick. As he flicked ashes from Camels into the butt-littered tray, he showed me how to grasp the wheel in the ten and two positions, execute the hand-over-hand turn, operate the stick shift, and play the clutch.

And he divulged secrets to parallel parking, which I have since passed down to two daughters and one grandson:  Line up your car with one that is parked at the curb. Slowly, back up into the empty space as you turn the steering wheel to the right. Fix your eyes on the right headlight of the car parked behind. Aim for your target, then reverse the direction of the steering wheel. Slip in.

"Make a left at the next light," Michelle says. I push the lever down to signal my turn, step gently on the brake, and come to a neat stop at the red signal. My instructor looks pleased as I say, "left, front, and right" while checking each of the three directions.

"You've got this," Michelle says, likely relieved that despite my age and lack of practice for two years; she will not have to stomp on her instructor's brake. "You haven't forgotten anything."

"This is fun," I say, resisting the urge to floor the gas pedal as if I were a felon fleeing the scene. Muscle memory has renewed and I am once again the teenager who has been handed the keys to the Buick.

"Both hands on the wheel," Michelle orders, after my left dropped to my lap following the classic hand-over-hand.

"But that's how I always drive," I tell her.

"You could lose a point for that," she says.

When Dad drove, he used only one hand for the wheel; the left lingered out the rolled down window. His arm was tanned from finger to elbow, and the remainder white as his grocery store apron.

During the road test, I forced myself to keep both hands on the wheel. And with Michelle's meticulous instructions, and memories of Dad's lessons, I easily passed. Sadly, I wasn't required to parallel park; I would've aced that.

To keep fresh, I'll occasionally rent a Zipcar, haul pillows from my couch, and take a spin. Anyone need a lift? Costco run?