Dorothy Ross, whose writing has appeared on True Stories Well Told before, sent me this story after reading about my first car, The Pinto.
By Dorothy Ross
When I was a teenager, I didn’t need a car. I rode buses to school and to my Saturday job at Woolworth’s. I could count on the boys to arrange transportation for dates. I was twenty-two years old when I bought my first car, a used convertible.
My turquoise and vanilla Plymouth stood at the curb for weeks. Before I could use it, I had to get a driver’s license. I signed up for lessons and spent Saturday mornings driving cautiously around Yonkers in the care of an instructor. It was reassuring that he had a second set of controls, so he could stop the car if I goofed. This was in the days of short, tight skirts. The man couldn’t hide his amusement at my tendency to drive with my knees pressed together while tugging my hemline down around my thighs. “Good thing you don’t have to shift gears,” he laughed. “I guess that’s why all you modest girls drive automatics.”
The inspector at the Motor Vehicle office was an older man who never cracked a smile. He made me so nervous during the road test that I made stupid mistakes. He marked me down for relying on my mirrors instead of craning my neck to check my blind spot, and he complained a couple of times that I wasn’t leaving enough space between my car and the vehicle ahead of me. I bumped over the curb when I attempted a three-point turn, and then stopped more than two feet from the sidewalk when he told me to park parallel. I thought I’d failed, but that soft-hearted sourpuss passed me—just barely.
Cruising around the North Bronx and Westchester County on weekends, with the top down and my hair blowing in the wind, I felt like a movie star— a regular Marilyn Monroe. I named my sweet car Daisy, after the girl in The Great Gatsby.
Most of my Daisy days were pure fun, driving out to Jones Beach or exploring shopping malls with my friends. I did have one scary incident, though.
I was invited to a party on Manhattan’s upper East Side on a warm summer evening. Around midnight, before beginning the drive to my parents’ house, I foolishly put the top down. I was enjoying the balmy night until I realized that I wasn’t on the East Side Drive any more. I was lost.
The only people on the city streets at that time of night were small groups of loud and scruffy-looking young men. Having recently seen West Side Story on Broadway, I decided the guys on the street corners were gang members. I didn’t know what to do, which way to turn. I was scared.
Stopped at a red light, I glanced down the cross street and spied the two green lanterns that hung outside of all New York City police stations. Confident that New York’s Finest would help me find my way, I turned left and pulled up in front of the precinct house where several of the “boys in blue” lingered on the front steps smoking cigarettes.
They looked at me—and they all started laughing. I could tell I was the butt of the joke, but I had no idea what was so funny. Then one of them pointed up at a street sign— ONE WAY— it read, with an arrow pointing east. My car was headed west. I had been driving the wrong way on a one-way street. And that’s not all. I was parked in front of a police station—in a NO PARKING zone.
One of the cops sauntered over and leaned on my car door. “Are you lost, little girl?” he asked, like he was talking to a four-year-old. His buddies egged him on with whistles and cat-calls. I had brothers who teased me like that. I knew they were just kidding.
When they stopped chuckling, and convinced themselves I was sober enough to drive, a couple of the young patrolmen secured my car’s rag top and made sure I had plenty of gas. They told me to roll up the windows, lock the doors and follow their squad car. I stayed close behind those flashing lights until we came to an entrance to the East Side Drive. Then the patrol car pulled over and stopped, and the guys waved me by.
* * *
THE GREEN LANTERNS
The watchmen who patrolled New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the 17th century, carried lanterns at night with green glass sides in them as a means of identification. When the men returned to the watch house, they hung the lanterns by the entrances as a symbol that the “watch” was still present and ever vigilant. That tradition continues to this day, mostly on police station houses in the northeastern states.
© 2017 Dorothy Ross
Dorothy is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving west in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California she served as an editor and program director. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, she often writes about the challenges of living with that condition.