BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Ahhh ... New York!

I've grumped about driving in this space previously, and as regular readers know, we don't "keep a car" ... which appears to be shocking to folks in most parts of the country! Well, I grew up in Manhattan, and in New York, nobody has cars ... and the area of Chicago that we live in is as close to living in NYC as one is likely to get outside of the borough, so a lot of the dynamics are the same.

Anyway ... there was a delightful piece in the Tribune about this today ... which I've cut-and-pasted beneath the cut (since those Trib things roll off of the free archive so quickly). I guess growing up in Manhattan "set my wiring" to its current carless state!,1,7746940.story

Drive? In New York, that question is license to laugh
`It's a lot easier to say "Taxi!"'

By Michael Powell
The Washington Post

August 22, 2003

NEW YORK -- As America has long suspected, no one here can drive.

Lawyers, doctors, day laborers, actors, psychotherapists: New York City has more able-bodied, non-licensed, car-phobic adults than any other place in the United States. About 25 percent of the inhabitants possess a driver's license.

Caroline Hwang, 33, a novelist and editor, is one of New York's carless millions. She lives in Manhattan and walks, hails cabs, uses her subway card. She packs her beach towel and takes the Long Island Rail Road to the Atlantic Ocean beaches and bums a ride when friends insist on one of those bucolic weddings north of the Bronx. As a teenager in Wisconsin she had a license, but that seems so yesterday.

"I asked my boyfriend recently if I could sit in the driver's seat. I couldn't remember which was the accelerator and which was the brake," she recalled. "I feel like New York City is set up for people like me."

Bill Bastone runs, a whimsical investigative Web site. He grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, a couple of blocks from the elevated No. 7 train, which rolls right into Manhattan. He went to New York University and worked for the Village Voice. He neglected to take driver's education in high school, and that was destiny. He is 42 and doesn't have a learner's permit.

"I don't remember dreams, as a rule, but the only ones I do recall are about out-of-control auto wrecks," Bastone said. "So maybe I need to sit down and talk to someone about this."

Or maybe this car-and-license thing is more proof that New York floats somewhere off the East Coast. For most Americans, the car--the Mustang, the Bronco--packs as much iconic wallop as a horse for John Wayne. But not here: In New York, you are defined by the IND, BMT or the IRT trains. When electricity failed last week, those carless commuters were left with only foot power.

New Yorkers plan work and play around their inability to drive. They vacation on Fire Island, because no cars are allowed. They tend to travel east to London, Paris or any other European city with a good subway system instead of heading west, say, to Utah or Wyoming or Nevada, all of which have long highways, where it's hard to find a taxi.

Ask Jimmy Breslin, this city's most famous newspaper columnist, why he doesn't drive. The 74-year-old Newsday writer begins: "I started out at a house on 101st Avenue in Queens, and right there the Q-8 bus stopped. The A-train was over at Liberty Avenue. I mean, a car? There was no need. The transportation was wondrous."

"Besides," he added, "I worked the night shift at the Long Island Press, and I needed to save my extra [cash] for beer."

Driving in New York is not natural. Periodically, the men and women at the city Department of Transportation measure the average speed of a car traveling across midtown, which they invariably find moving at the rate of a tortoise.

A driver's minefield

Then there are other problems: alternate side of the street parking, rapacious meter enforcers, $100 parking tickets, exorbitant insurance rates, incomprehensible and contradictory highway signs and the fact that no car in New York ever stays in its lane.

"It's bad enough to sit in the back of a taxi and watch," Bastone said. "Who wants to be part of that?"

Even romance bends to a licenseless rhythm. Chris Policano, 42, is chief spokesman for the City Council. A decade or so back, he asked his beloved to marry him. She said yes, but set a condition: He must get his driver's license.

"I'd had learner's permits, many, many permits," Policano said. "But scheduling the road test was so daunting. There was that parallel parking thing."

As it turned out, Policano took his road test along the Brooklyn docks in a blizzard. The test officer wanted to get home and said to skip the parking. So Policano is a licensed driver. But that fact hasn't transformed his life. "You know," he said, "it's a lot easier to say `Taxi!"'

Jeri Drucker grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a regional hot spot for the driving-challenged. She is planning her son's wedding on the far side of the Delaware Water Gap. It's a logistical nightmare. Her sisters don't drive, nor do her adult nieces or her uncle.

Drucker plans to rent something akin to a school bus to haul her family out there.

"My father had a license," Drucker said, "but that was a long, long time ago, and he never drove. Maybe this is inherited?"

Auto school shrink

In this unlicensed wilderness, the city's hundreds of auto schools hang shingles like lanterns for the auto-phobic. As Ira, an instructor at the Bensonhurst Driving School, said of himself, "I'm not a teacher. I'm a psychotherapist."

There is the man who has had learner's permits for 17 years and comes in each April for a lesson or two before deciding he can't handle it, and disappears. And there are legions of 58-year-old accountants and 62-year-old lawyers who see retirement approaching and start thinking Boca Raton, Fla., and Tucson, Ariz., if only they could drive.

"We have 75- and 80-year-old students," said Wilma Valenzuela of the Professional Driving School on East 23rd Street in Manhattan. "They always ask, `Do I drive right away?' I say, `Not if you haven't driven before, you don't!"'

Some drivers come in for late spring tune-ups. They have licenses but have never used them and now need to get to the Hamptons.

"We take them to a quiet street, sip a cup of tea and let them ease into it," said Elizabeth Lim of the Grand Prix Driving School.

All of which is very nice. But as this is New York, a tincture of belligerence can sneak into conversations with the licenseless. As in, "Why should I drive?"

M.P. Dunleavey, an editor and Manhattan native, recalls relatives poking fun at her for being 30-something and not having a license.

"I didn't think it was funny," she said. "There was something gauche about having a car. It was so--suburban."

Joe Dunlap, 34, has spiraled through the city as a bike messenger, traveled the world and now is studying to get his master's degree in education. Someday, maybe, he'll get a license.

"If I get bored and I'm like 50," he said. "I just might do it."

Stranger things have happened in New York.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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