I’m old now, but I still have my memories. Certain events in my life have etched themselves into the folds of my cerebral cortex and cannot be shook. One of these “events” took place over a series of several weeks in the summer of 1995. I was 15-and-a-half and (at that time) eligible for a learner’s permit to drive. I asked a friend in my Driver’s Ed class who he was using to complete his driver’s training, and he referred me to a guy he had found who did it on the cheap. What he didn’t tell me about this man could fill volumes.
I can still picture my driving instructor’s face and appearance, but after all this time, his name escapes me, so we’ll just call him Larry. He was a stocky man in his mid-40s with graying black hair and a thick black mustache. Larry was balding on the top of his head, but compensated by keeping what remained of his hair long enough to wear in a ponytail. Sometimes, though, he let it fly free. He preferred the cheap, knock-off, Oakley-style sunglasses of the era, and wore a thin gold chain around his neck. Larry normally rocked short jean shorts paired up with the occasional netted T-shirts to show off his ample body hair.
If you said he was a looker, I’d tell you to get your eyes checked. Larry’s appearance landed him somewhere between Super Mario and Captain Lou Albano, only greasier. He tried to make up for it with what he probably thought was charisma. This included applying copious amount of cologne while riding in the car with me, honking the horn at teenage girls, yelling out the window at said girls and overzealously applying the brakes at every stop I made.
“If you want to pass the driving test, you have to make them feel that snap at each stop!” he’d say. He was clearly a man who loved his job, and you couldn’t hate him for that even if he was sort of a creep.
I’ve heard about people looking like their pets, but I’d never met a man who looked like his car before I met Larry. His ride was a mid-to-late ‘80s Nissan Sentra in faded blue with the words “STUDENT DRIVER” painted in yellow across the doors and trunk lid. The body of the car was covered in dents, dings and unfinished repair work from years of having untrained drivers behind the wheel. I’m not sure if this bucket was Larry’s daily driver, but from all the garbage inside, it sure seemed like it. The man loved his Gatorade and chips, and we’d regularly include a gas station or convenience store stop on our route to pick up supplies.
For the next several weeks, when we weren’t getting more Doritos and Gatorade, Larry and I practiced making hard stops at stop signs, backing up in a straight line, parallel parking and driving on the freeway. We also crashed into curbs, made illegal U-turns, ran stop signs and screeched a few tires. Through it all, Larry kept his cool and encouraged me to keep trying. He also reassured me that I need not focus on the girls walking around, because he would reach across and honk the horn if they were cute enough for him.
I ended up passing my driving test on my first try. The proctor at the DMV seemed preoccupied that day and barely paid attention to my driving. He got distracted watching a dog play in someone’s yard and told me to make a turn at the last minute. I barely made the turn, but instead of docking me points, he apologized for not telling me sooner. In the end, I got a perfect score, but I don’t know if I have the exam proctor or Larry to thank.
These days, I’m an OK driver. I don’t always put what Larry taught me into practice. I probably go a little too fast on the freeway, and I no longer make those necks snap at stop signs like Larry showed me. While he didn’t have much impact on my driving ability, Larry certainly affected my life. I learned so much about the pitfalls of certain fashion choices, the abrasiveness of bad cologne in confined spaces and how not to talk to women. To this day, every time I see a jacked-up car with “STUDENT DRIVER” painted on the side, I think of Larry and remember what not to do.