America has always had a love affair with the open road. I suppose that once upon a time ago, though as recently as the nineteen- fifties, that love was equated with limitless horizons and abundant opportunities. Personally, I like to be driven, so that I can nap.
My driving has improved over the years, but initially I had to spend six months in driver’s education instead of the usual six weeks before my teacher Mr. Lovelace, or as he pronounced it, Luvlahss, okayed my driver’s permit. It seemed I had poor reflexes. Fortunately, Lovelace had a brake pedal on his side of the car as well, which he put to good use one day when I pulled into the parking lot at school and proceeded straight toward a lamppost. He made all sorts of squawking noises, unable to articulate the obvious fact that we were about to crash. Finally, he remembered the break, and we squealed to a halt.
‘Did yew naht see thaht laymppost?’ he asked, exasperated, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in his skinny neck.
‘Apparently not,’ I replied calmly. Mike Ryan, my childhood companion, who used to come to my lessons just for the laughs was rolling around in the backseat, in stitches at this point.
My skills didn’t improve much, and when I went to take my drivers test, my ever pragmatic father said, ‘Why don’t you wear your red shirt, the one with the scooped neck.’ Good thing that I did, since I blew the first stop sign. The driving tester, immersed in investigating the clutch which gave him an advantageous look out post, never noticed and didn’t even make me parallel park, something I still haven’t quite mastered.
Fortunately both of my husbands were/ are terrific drivers, so I don’t really sweat much over this. Although unlike them, I have remained accident free with one exception. When I was about nineteen years old my mother, a few friends and I were headed to the ballet. We lived on a busy street, though our house was set back far on the lot. However, it was sometimes tricky to pull out in traffic particularly when big hair was in fashion, since anyone sitting next to the driver would have obscured the view. We were in a rush, and my mother said to me, ‘Go now.’ I have since realized that it is good policy to do the exact opposite of what she says, but then I was still an obedient daughter. Pulling out, I managed to crash right into the future Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley.
‘Leel, let me take care of dis,’ my mother said, getting out of the car. I suppose back in the day, one was not required to call the police and remain on the scene, and so she convinced ‘Meester Reechard’ to take her insurance card and call her the following Monday, since we were running late. Actually he was pretty nice about the whole thing. This might have been right around the time she was driving herself shopping and trying to back out of her spot in the mall parking lot, managed to ram the three cars parked behind her. I had to go to the police station to plead her case after she was picked up, but I can’t recall this at all since I clearly blocked the whole thing out. She claims the cop couldn’t take his eyes off me, and she got off easily, promising her insurance would cover all damages.
Nowadays, my driving is pretty good since Mickey often admonishes me to be brave and drive like a Serb [ which I suppose is somewhat like an Italian with an even more salacious vocabulary], and I wheel myself, family and friends about in my chariot, a twenty three year old Mercedes, which I adore. However, this was not always my dream car. That place will always be held by the Jaguar xk-e, in forest green, which I first laid eyes on when a divorcée named Jane moved into the neighborhood in 1969. Jane was about thirty-five and had a Jean Shrimpton look going on. She had the hair, the clothes and of course the eye-make-up. Soon she took up with my friend Margaret’s older brother, who was back from the war and no doubt had plenty of youthful energy to expend. Jane was a very nice person and indulged me by giving me rides around the block occasionally.
When Leo was making tons of money he decided to buy me a car, though we lived in the heart of the city, and I had no use for one. Asking my preference, he immediately overrode it, saying, ‘The Jaguar has an atrocious repair record.’ So he had me accompany him to the Loeber Motors showroom where I was to pick something sensible and Germanic. Of course, when we got there, Leo’s megalomania kicked in as soon as he spotted a very lightly used Rolls -Royce.
‘Do you want it, Mado?’ he asked, while the obviously excited salesman beamed at him.
Now the Rolls-Royce, as you all probably know, is tailored to fit a tall and skinny Englishman; the seats are high, the steering wheel thin, the windshield, narrow. I looked it over and innocently remarked, ‘There’s really not a lot of leg room in back, is there?’ The salesman, crushed, sniffed, ‘Madame, one doesn’t buy a Rolls-Royce for the legroom.’
My mother’s bewildered comment on the situation was, ‘ Leel, you rrrr the frrrst woman who ever turned down Rolls-Royce.’ Later, I was to turn down some of the most expensive real estate in Chicago as well, which would have secured me financially for life, but that is another story