This took place in 2002. I ran a tape recorder throughout this trip, so all quotes are 100% accurate.
Gaylord called out driving instructions from the passenger seat of my dingy white 1990 Geo Prism as we headed up Eighth Avenue just above 45th Street.
“Don’t hit the lady with the cane. That would be pushing it.”
I was dependent on his every word, having no idea how to navigate the streets of New York City from anywhere but a sidewalk or a subway. I was the nervous, incompetent out-of-state driver that everyone likes to curl their lip at, and this was my first drive on New York asphalt.
The sidewalks were overflowing with slow-moving pedestrians marveling at the buildings above or pondering the litter below.
As we approached the next traffic light, suddenly Gaylord leaned forward and jutted a finger towards the windshield.
“Go. Go. Go!” he said with rising urgency. “It’s a yellow light. Yellow means go!”
“But I have a woman in front of me,” I said.
“Don’t get into this lane,” he yelled. “This is what I mean. You are not a New Yorker. And that was the worst non-New York driving I have ever witnessed.”
I cheerily put up with this abuse because I knew that the only way a die-hard pedestrian like myself could learn to drive in New York would be from a tried and true New York driver. There are, of course, two kinds of New Yorkers: those who are the most famously aggressive motorists in America, and the millions of others who have no ambition or need to ever get behind a wheel. Gaylord, in his lifetime, has been both. Born and raised in the city, he now lived on the Jersey side of the Hudson River, where driving is essential to living. He is that rare hybrid animal—the native New York driver in New Jersey.
I was the opposite: Born and raised among the death traps and suicide raps of tri-state suburbia and passing many years in Hoboken, I was a recently minted member of the vast population of non-driving New Yorkers, having just moved into the city to pursue an advanced degree. Unusual for my pedigree, however, I was the odd ex-New Jersian who was terrified of driving in the first place. I was never much good at it. I grew up in a town zig-zagged with major highways, all teeming with cranky drivers already late for their job at the mall. I dreaded every trip, and was thrilled to live anywhere that subways and buses were the norm.
But just as some long to jump out of a plane to make their own heart beat faster, I had an ambition, on that day with Gaylord, to do the scariest thing I could imagine: Take a crack at being that despised creature who clogs and disrupts the flow of New York—hogging the parking spaces, amateurishly causing gridlock, and, worst of all, narrowly missing pedestrians by a finger’s length on every corner.
I convinced myself there were sound reasons for a New York City resident to pursue this mortal endeavor: Perhaps an emergency would arise and I’d have to, for example, helm the wheel of a cab for a passed-out driver, to get him to a hospital to save his life. Or perhaps I’d want to drive a rented van to assist a friend with a move, or pick up some gigantic but wonderful piece of exercise equipment someone advertised as free for the taking.
But looking back, I can’t help but feel that my recent move to this intimidating city and my feeling of “I’ll never fit in!” inspired a gut reaction to stake out my inherent differences. I was compelled to a final claim of my own shameful heritage and become, or even embrace, if just for a day, that abhorrent but near-mythic creature real New Yorkers rank just below feline-size Super Rats and Cropsey: the New Jersey Driver.
“Okay, first of all stay away from anything yellow,” Gaylord said as we coasted through the Holland Tunnel, embarking on our driving lesson. “Cabbies are insane.”
“Should I put my headlights on?” I asked, referring to the dimness of the white-tiled passageway.
“Naaaah. It marks you as a New Jersey person.”
“Do you consider yourself a New Jersey driver?” I asked him.
“I have a New Jersey driver’s license, if that’s what you mean,” he said defensively. Gaylord, my remarkably young-looking 40-year-old friend who exudes that fifties-era cool—neat, intellectual, but hip—was raised in Manhattan Valley on 100th Street. He has, however, lived in Hudson Country, New Jersey for the last fourteen years. He uses public transportation to commute to work in Mid-town Manhattan from his brownstone in Jersey City, and has spent all but two of his years as a licensed driver in New Jersey. If I were Freud, I might have diagnosed a Jersey-driver identity crisis, but at the time I was afraid to bring this up.
We exited the tunnel and entered into the bright sunshine illuminating all of the grays and browns of downtown New York City. We curved past the First Precinct police station and over some cobblestone as we headed toward Canal Street. Bike messengers brushed past the cars at the cross-walks, and the pedestrians chaotically strolled between the crawling cars.
“Even as a person who drives in Manhattan, I appreciate the jaywalk,” Gaylord said. “The jaywalk is the way to get around.”
We veered up West Broadway, lamenting the new over-priced optician and the Tommy Hilfiger store, and cut across Houston Street to the other, eastern Broadway.
The avenue was packed with bicycles and foot-travelers, with the traffic so slow that no one hesitated to walk into the street at any moment.
“This lady—sidewalks are not her style,” Gaylord said. “Oh, here’s a good thing. Now you’ve got to steer around this bus.”
“All right,” I said. “How do I do that?”
“Um…you just do it.”
After I gingerly squeaked my way through, an NYU bus unabashedly cut me off.
“See how they bogarted on you?” Gaylord scolded. “That’s because you’re not aggressive.”
In the days following, I called some experts to confirm that my friend was on point.
“New York drivers are used to any kind of aggressive situation,” said Al Pankin, owner of the U.S. Auto School, one of the scores of fine driving schools in Manhattan that transforms sidewalk stompers into “real” New York motorists. “They’re very, very good drivers. If you can drive in New York, you can drive anywhere.”
“They have a less than courteous attitude,” Frank Liga, president of Model Auto Driving School, said politely. “But they park really good in tight spaces.”
And what about the New Jersey driver?
“They stink!” Pankin said with a laugh. “Seriously, I don’t think they’re used to driving in an urban setting. It’s a whole other ball game.”
And the proprietors of New York City driving schools ought to know what they are talking about when it comes to their particular craft. Their students not only have to learn to maneuver through this obstacle course city, but in order to acquire a license, they must pass the infamous New York driving test.
“The driving test in New York is the opposite of the one in New Jersey,” said Gaylord as we made our way down Broadway past Canal Street Jeans and Grand Street. “In New Jersey, the driving test is easy, but the written test is hard. In New York, the written test is so easy, I think I got nothing wrong.”
For the driving test, however, Gaylord considered his first test a throw-away, knowing that he would probably fail. But he was prepared for the second try.
“The second time I passed,” he said. “I did really well. My father didn’t even need to bribe the instructor with the promise of sausages.”
“Sausages?” I asked.
“Yeah, there was an instructor, and he goes up to her and says, ‘Do you like sausages?’ It was an obvious bribe.”
“Uh huh. So…your father had a sausage connection?”
“Yeah,” he said. “He has some butcher upstate.”
As we turned back onto busy Canal, we saw a pick-up truck, also turning, skip all the way across the lanes in one swoop. We were awed by this foolhardy move. The truck had the familiar lemon-yellow Jersey license plate.
This time we went uptown at Sixth Avenue. Maneuvering with the cabs and trying to keep up with the flow of traffic, I realized that I was not even paying attention to the changing traffic lights. I was only paying attention to the car ahead of me. Gaylord assured me that this is normal. I also noticed the new perspective of wide Sixth Avenue from the driver’s seat. The city seemed more expansive, even majestic, than it usually did from the back seat or the sidewalk. The buildings loomed gigantically at either side of the windshield, and the summer sky seemed to break the cityscape wide open. I had not expected this.
“Look at that car,” Gaylord said as we began to pass through Chelsea. “The light already turned red, and it went through. That’s what’s called a pink light. In New York, you have to respect the pink light, and I’ll tell you why. If you don’t go through a pink light, the car behind you might think you’re going through anyway.”
I contemplated that perplexing bit of logic as a motorcyclist zipped past between the lanes and a pedestrian walked alongside my car on the street. Suddenly a cab abruptly darted into my lane. If I hadn’t hit the horn, we surely would have collided.
“Did you see that?” Gaylord said excitedly. “That was the perfect example of crazy, crazy driving. That was something I forgot to tell you. Know your horn. Use that horn.”
A woman with dyed black dreadlocks, steering her bike with one hand, slipped past us. She was engrossed in a cell phone conversation.
“I notice you’re doing no lane changing whatsoever,” Gaylord suddenly said. “You are not driving like a New Yorker at all. A New Yorker would have moved to that lane, and then hit that telephone bicyclist.”
“Now you’re going to be crossing the deuce,” said Gaylord as we approached 42nd Street. “That’s what they called it back in the day.”
We rolled past a huge man-made hole in the street pierced with a big, steaming red and white striped pipe that we agreed looked like the Cat In the Hat’s hat, and made our way over to Eighth Avenue via 45th Street.
At the corner of the street, a two-way flow of determined tourists and business people at least six-people deep streamed past the hood of my car.
“Okay, the light is green,” I said nervously. “But there are so may pedestrians.”
“Yeah, just go anyway,” Gaylord said. “Just honk the horn. Look, you have the right of way—keep driving. Keep driving! I’m serious! Just honk your horn at them!”
Gaylord was now shouting, as the people do not even glance at my car creeping inch by inch towards them.
“Honk your horn at them! Honk your horn at them! HONK YOUR HORN!”
The light turned yellow. “Okay, too late, because you were not aggressive.” Gaylord was in a frenzy. “You let them win. That was wrong. You failed. You should have honked your horn and driven. They would have gotten out of the way.”
“That was like six-people deep,” I pleaded. “There were hundreds of people walking in front of me from both directions.”
“Notice that you are now in the crosswalk because of that.”
“I know, and I feel terrible.”
“Do you know why you should feel terrible?” he roared. “Because you didn’t hit those people. You didn’t even try. And you would not have hit them. They would have gotten out of the way.”
It took a few minutes to recover from this episode as I drove up Eighth. I had tears rolling down my face from the stinging humiliation and the cry-laughing that had poured out of me as a result. Gaylord reveled in the satisfaction that I learned a lesson from the experience of wimping out to a mass jaywalking.
“Can we revisit why that was unsuccessful?” he said. “Because it’s a challenge. And if you let them win, they will always win.”
“Now they know that I’m a wimp,” I said.
“The word is out. They’re gonna be walking on your car hood now.”
Driving was more leisurely as we made our way through the Upper West Side. The cars thinned out and the people on the streets were a bit more orderly, although I still was dealing with my share of close calls.
“Driving in New York is just a series of near accidents,” Gaylord said. We noted the bizarre number of white vans on every block in Manhattan Valley and gaped at a telephone wire strung with dozens of sneakers in West Harlem, as young children on bikes skimmed by inches from the car.
I requested an evaluation of my driving thus far.
“You get safety points,” Gaylord said. “You have been exceedingly safe. As far as standing out like a sore thumb: Yes! By being safe, you’ve done that.”
In Washington Heights and Inwood, many of the businesses we passed are knock-offs of better known brand names, with matching logos. We drove by a Kennedy’s Fried Chicken, with its red and white colors, and then a Coby truck carrying electronics, with its four-letter logo in the same font as Sony.
As we headed back down south near Fort Tryon Park, I accidentally got us on the Henry Hudson Parkway. After much scolding and my palms breaking out in a sweat, we got back on track in Washington Heights.
“You’re doing great, pal,” Gaylord assured me.
Heading east on 181st Street, with its splashy dollar-store shops and its politely swarming crowds, I had a breakthrough.
I zipped through the tail end of a yellow light, muscling my way onto the next block during the red.
“Yaaaaay,” Gaylord said as he applauded. “Congratulations. You are now a New Yorker.”
This boost of confidence helped me to weave past a combative Post Office truck and slip through the traffic onto Audubon Avenue.
“On the right there, you were a little close,” Gaylord noted with a hint of genuine concern in his voice.
On Audubon Avenue, everyone was double parked, and we watched as a guy in an Audi drove without hesitation onto a street with a huge “Do No Enter” sign We took turns trying to pronounce the Spanish business names, having no idea what they meant. One canopied doorway advertised a driving school that also does income taxes.
By this time I had zoomed through so many yellow lights, undaunted by the promenading masses, that Gaylord declared me a pro at 125h Street. He rewarded me with a blast of air conditioning.
Park Avenue transformed itself abruptly at 96th Street from a roadway lined with projects and tenements to one of the richest neighborhoods in the world.
“It’s door-to-doorman buildings,” Gaylord joked, as we spied expensive, fluffy dogs and elderly women with tight, china doll skin. “This is how the other half lives. I mean the other two percent.”
Despite the ultra-wide lanes and “safety zone” signs, I found myself dodging as many cars as ever. Here, however, the offenders were Lincoln Towncars. But there was a false sense of security in the neat rows of magenta flowers on the islands in between the lanes, and I began taking risks at the lights that I hadn’t dared before.
“I’ve created a monster,” Gaylord said.
On the other side of the passageway through the Helmsley Building, past Grand Central Station, we took the underground tunnel that spits cars out at 33rd Street.
I was congratulated by my co-pilot for not turning lights on in the tunnel.
“You’re not turning your lights on because you’re a real New Yorker.”
Down near Union Square, Gaylord explained to me the “chain of honk.” I was arguing that I was not the vehicle being honked at because I had not done anything wrong.
“No, they were honking at you, and they expected you to honk at the people in front of you. It’s a chain of honk.”
A teenager dressed entirely in blue glided down the street on a skateboard, and I barely noticed as I breezed past him.
“You came really close,” Gaylord suddenly said in the first authentically worried tone of the day. “You came really close to that guy on the skateboard.”
“Well, he was right in the middle of the street,” I said.
“He wasn’t in the middle of the street. He was on the edge.”
“But he had all of that sidewalk.”
“He didn’t want to be on the sidewalk!”
Strangely, I felt none of the visceral concern that my friend seemed to be feeling for this almost-victim, this faceless person of the street. It occurred to me that even if I bothered to reach down into my soul to scrounge up some sympathy for the young skateboarder, I would have found nothing. To me he had become merely an obstacle in the path of my Geo Prism in its pursuit of Broadway. He was simply another of the thousands of pedestrians that had been in my way that day. Something had shifted within me. And that something really liked the view through the windshield.
“Welcome to New Jersey,” Gaylord exclaimed as we passed the tiled marker in the Holland Tunnel separating the Empire state from the Garden state. “You did it! Congratulations!”
The odometer told me that we had covered 34 miles of Manhattan. And all in a fleeting three hours.
“The best thing was that you didn’t lose your cool, and you didn’t panic,” said Gaylord.
These were not words I had imagined coming from his mouth when we had been heading in the opposite direction hours ago. I didn’t lose my cool. I didn’t panic I never truly appreciated the old “fearing fear itself” adage until that moment.
And it was with a feeling of great honor that I realized I had truly transcended the New Jersey-driver cliché when, as we finished up the last bit of tunnel, my wise driving master—in all his tri-state wisdom—turned to me seriously and divulged the Zen of New York City driving.
“In all of that honking and impatience,” Gaylord explained, “there is a sort of synergy in the idea that we all have to drive the same way. Because one hesitant driver can cause a pile-up. So what seems like wanton chaos is actually just a different kind of order.”
Of course. The pink light. The chain of honk. It all made sense in a way it never could have in my former life. My former life, earlier that summer’s day, as a mere New Jersey Driver.