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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, March 23

Gapers Block

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I'm on my way home from work. I'm a bit later than usual -- got tied up in a meeting -- and I'm hungry, tired and have to pee. I turn onto Albion, ready to veer around two traffic circles and make a right at the alley to jog a block over to my place. But as I near the second circle, a kid on a bike stops right in the middle of the road, looks me dead in the eye and says something I can't hear over the radio. Huh?

I'm pretty sure he's playing a game with me, some sort of "I dare you to get past me" game. But evidently not: he walks his bike over to my passenger side and motions to roll down the window. I'm expecting a plea for money or something and consider pulling away now that he's out from in front of me, but instead I turn down the radio and roll the window down a bit.

"Teach me how to drive!" the kids says.

Wait, what? "Will you teach me how to drive?" Umm, I can't right now. "Why not, what you gotta go do?" I just can't, I gotta go. "Well, when can you?"

I'm flustered, and actually a bit impressed with this kid -- it takes some serious cohones to stop random strangers and demand they teach you how to drive. I ask him how old he is. "I'm 16! I go to Sullivan, see, I got my card..." He motions to his pocket, half-reaching for his wallet. "Can you teach me?"

I say I can't right now, and he asks again, when can I then. Tomorrow -- no, tomorrow's no good, maybe the weekend? "What, Friday or Saturday?" Saturday... "What time -- 12 o'clock?" Yyeah... 12 is OK. "Where will we meet? Right here?" he asks, looking over his shoulder at the intersection, "Where will I find you?" No, let's meet a block over. "OK, you'll teach me how to drive?" Yeah. "Alright, thanks!" Sure, what's your name? "Brian." OK, I'll see you then. Don't forget your learner's card.

So I'm teaching a driving lesson this Saturday to some neighborhood boy I met on the street. How crazy is that?


Fig1. Our intrepid reporter navigates the highways and byways of Chicagoland.

I remember my first experience driving, which wasn't a lesson, per se. I was 15, working at the concession stand by the ballfields in the park district. My boss, Lee, was all of 16, but he had his own car, a Subaru XT -- the one with the weird back end. One day he asked me to drive over to the main building to pick up some supplies, and tossed me the keys. I told him I hadn't driven before, and he said, "Don't worry, you'll do fine. It's D for drive, R for reverse and P for park." I went out and gingerly drove up the gravel road around the tennis courts to the main building, sweating nervously the whole way. I did do fine, but I also went about 5 miles an hour the whole way.

My next opportunity was in my mom's Aerostar, a "minivan" in length only. I towered over other cars and felt like we were going to tip any time I took a corner too fast. In retrospect that was probably a good thing. Tooling around the neighborhood, I got the hang of driving pretty quickly, and by the time I got into drivers' ed class I was pretty confident about my abilities. Which meant I had more time to worry about my car-mates' abilities. On our first outing, one girl drove us onto the shoulder and another took a turn so fast and shallow the instructor had to jam on his extra brakes to keep us from taking out a mailbox on our way into the ditch. End of lesson.

After I got my license, my dad gave me a lesson on driving a stick-shift on the way home from a Sox game. We pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center being built, switched seats and he explained how to ease out the clutch while easing down on the accelerator. After I started to get the hang of first gear, he explained how to shift into second, then third. I alternated between stalling and pealing out, but generally did OK for a first try. Well enough to agree to drive home. I stalled at nearly every intersection and squealed the tires loudly at one, but somehow I managed to make it without burning out the clutch.


Fig2. The driving lesson will not involve a highway trip.

Memories of those early experiences return as I look toward my Saturday lesson with Brian. Assuming he shows up, I figure I'll take him over to the parking lot of that closed K-Mart on Peterson and give him a basic lesson. We'll roam the empty lanes practicing acceleration, braking, turn signals -- the easy stuff. I won't have to worry about shifting, since I've got an automatic. Chances are he already knows the meanings of street signs, having lived among them all his life. And he's got to know to watch out for pedestrians -- what city dweller hasn't nearly been run over by an inattentive driver?

Of course, I'm not going into this without some skepticism. For all I know, I just got set up for a mugging or car-jacking. Just in case, I'll empty the car of valuables and head out with a $20 and my license in my pocket -- better safe than sorry. I don't think I'm going to have anything to worry about, though, other than maybe some rattled nerves. After all, this kid's trusting me, a stranger, to teach him how to drive and not kidnap/molest/beat him, the least I can do is trust him back. I'm more worried about my car getting damaged. We'll just have to see how it goes.


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