My son is learning to drive. This terrifies me. He's 4 years old.
Well, OK, technically he's 15. But from the perspective of the aging parent, there is no major difference between 4 and 15, except that when your child is 4, his motoring privileges are restricted to little toy Fisher-Price vehicles containing little toy Fisher-Price people who are unlikely (although I would not totally rule it out, in America) to sue you.
Whereas when your child turns 15, the state of Florida lets him obtain a permit that allows him to drive an actual car on actual roads, despite the fact that you can vividly remember when he slept on "Return of the Jedi" sheets. Of course there are restrictions: He must be accompanied by a licensed driver age 18 or over. But that does not reassure me. What that means to me is that, in the eyes of the state of Florida, it is perfectly OK for my son to be driving around accompanied only by Ted Kennedy.
I want tougher restrictions than that. I want the law to say that if my son is going to drive, he must be accompanied by a licensed paramedic and at least two Supreme Court justices. Also I believe that, as a safety precaution, his car should be attached via a stout chain to a restraining device such as the Pentagon.
It's not that I think my son is a bad driver. He's actually a pretty good driver, careful to signal his turns. That's what worries me: He'll be driving in Miami, where nobody else, including the police, does this. If Miami motorists were to see a turn signal, there's no telling how they'd react. They could become alarmed and start shooting.
And what if my son actually believes the official Florida state driver's manual when it says that the left lane is for passing only? Not here in Miami, it isn't! The driving public here apparently believes that there is some kind of deadly voodoo curse on the right lane, so everybody drives in the left lane, at speeds ranging all the way from Indianapolis 500 down to Car Wash. This means that if you get behind somebody traveling at, say, Funeral Procession, and you want to pass, you have to disregard the driver's manual, risk the voodoo curse and use the right lane, unless the driver in front of you is talking on a cellular telephone, because these people frequently receive urgent mandatory instructions from whoever they're talking to, such as "swerve across all available lanes immediately!" So when you're behind cell-phone drivers, it's generally wise to wait patiently for a few moments until they ram into a bridge abutment; then you can pass safely on whichever side has the least amount of flame spewing out.
We veteran Miami drivers know this, just as we know that, in Miami, it's considered acceptable to park on any semi-level surface including roofs, and to go through a red light as long as you can still remember when it was yellow. But how is my son supposed to know these things?
What really scares me is, he'll want to drive a lot. I know this, because I remember exactly how I felt when I got my driver's license, in 1963. I was a student at Pleasantville (N.Y.) High School, where, if you were a male, cars were extremely important. There were two major religions: Ford and Chevy. Ford guys would carve "FoMoCo" (for "Ford Motor Co.") on desks; Chevy guys -- this was considered extremely witty -- would change it to read "FoNoGo."
We found great wisdom in Beach Boys car songs, which are just like love songs to a woman, except they're (a) more passionate, and (b) more technically detailed, as in these lyrics from "Little Deuce Coupe":
"She's ported and relieved and she's stroked and bored;
L She'll do a hundred and forty in the top end floored . . . "
At lunchtime we stood next to the circle in front of the high school and watched guys drive around slowly, revving their engines. Sometimes, if we were especially impressed with a car, we would spit.
I applied for my New York state driver's license the instant I was old enough, and the day it arrived -- finally! -- in the mail, I borrowed my mother's car, which was a Plymouth Valiant station wagon that could attain a top speed of 53 miles per hour if dropped from a bomber. I didn't care: I had wheels.
I drove around at random for approximately the next two years. It made no difference to me where I was going. I was happy simply to be in motion, with the AM radio turned up loud and tuned to WABC in New York City, which would be playing, say, "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons:
"He's so fine (Doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang)
Wish he were mine (Doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang)
That handsome boy over there . . . "
And behind the wheel, with my arm draped casually out the window, I imagined that I was that handsome boy, not some dweeb driving his mom's Valiant. I was cool. I was driving.
These days when I'm driving I rarely listen to music. I do listen to traffic reports, because I'm always late for some obligatory grown-up thing. I'm never driving just to be driving.
But my son will be, soon. He'll be out there every chance he gets, feeling so fine, cruising to nowhere, signaling his turns, playing his music, cranking it up when a good song comes on, maybe exchanging high-fives with the Supreme Court justices.
Yup, he'll be on the road a lot -- a teen-ager but still, in many ways, a human being. Please watch out for him.