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DRIVING LESSONS - Peterson Toscano

DRIVING LESSONS - Peterson Toscano

PETERSON TOSCANO writes about grace, in fits and starts.

When I was 16 years old, two half-drunk men in a car more than twice my age taught me how to drive on a frozen lake. One of the men, my dad, Pete Toscano, had helped a widow in her distress by taking a 1950 Ford four-door sedan off her hands. Then he gave me this classic automobile as a birthday gift. The car looked like a small black and white tank and weighed about as much. 

My dad and his drinking buddy Ricky piled into the car. I hopped in the backseat just as Ricky put the Ford in gear and rolled onto the ice. The lake made groaning creaky sounds, but the ice was over two feet thick and easily supported the Ford and us in it. Ricky was tall and lanky, twenty years younger than my dad and looked to me like a cowboy from a Western. He drove trucks and tractors, and this car felt a little like both as we skidded and chugged on the icy lake. 

My dad was never the best driver. He would weave and bob on the road. On city streets and on the highway he either floated from one lane to another like a distracted swan or he charged in and out of lanes like a demented bull. He did better on the country roads in upstate New York where we lived. While he always used his turning signal, he never quite turned the wheel far enough so that the signal switched off. It flashed and clicked for miles, confusing other drivers and driving those of us in the backseat crazy. “Dad!” my sisters and I shouted. “What?” he asked. “Your blinker!” we told him, exasperated by the incompetence of adults. 

On country roads he drove too fast. In New York City, he drove even faster and grew agitated by the taxies dodging in front of him. He used his most colorful language for drivers he felt wronged him. “You shit-bird! Stay in your own damn lane.”

Most of my childhood memories are set in the backseat of the family station wagon. Living in the middle of nowhere, we drove twenty minutes or more to shop or go to the movies or the doctor. My dad always drove while my mom read a novel in the passenger seat. Her books formed a forcefield around her where she escaped the real pain of working class life and dove into the Irish Countryside or a Los Angeles crime scene or an upperclass suburban pit of decadent sin. I imagine the book also shielded her from having to see the road and my father’s erratic driving.

On my sixteenth birthday Ricky drove us around the ice for forty-five minutes explaining the complicated shifting process between the three gears. The empty beer cans piled up on the floorboards. Drinking was a big part of the adult life in that depressed area of New York State in long need of a recovery. Maybe I should have been nervous about the drinking and the driving, but we were on an empty frozen lake with nothing to hit—a vast snow-covered empty parking lot. 

It was when I got behind the wheel that I felt fear. I was a shy kid who did not like to make mistakes in front of other people, and I was a complete novice. I only ever rode a bicycle. I sat in that ancient car with its mildew smells, holding the massive steering wheel, looking at its giant instrument panel. The three pedals on the floor and the stick shift on the column baffled me. Heterosexuality confounded me at this time in my life, and that first car ride felt just like my first failed attempts with a girlfriend. I flailed about in the driver’s seat hoping something would go in the right direction. 

Ricky and my dad were patient with me and seemed to enjoy my initial fits and starts. Once I got the hang of it, they encouraged me to “open her up” and cheered me as I glided and spun around. I may not have learned about parallel parking or the three-point-turn, but that day I sure learned how to drive in icy conditions.  

That was the first and last driving lesson with my dad. The rest were outsourced to Coach Elko who taught drivers’ ed. I still learned things from observing my dad in the driver’s seat. For instance, whenever he drove at night on our country roads, he always used his high beams. When he saw the glow of headlights ahead, he diligently dimmed them down. But God help the drivers who failed to dim their lights! My dad blasted them with a string of expletives. Then he flashed his high beams one time as a warning shot across the hood. If the oncoming driver did not relent and brazenly kept the high beams on, my dad flipped his high beams back on—a nighttime, road rage, middle finger. 

After the car passed my dad would curse, fume, and grumble for a couple of miles. He’d then grow quiet. Thoughtful. Perhaps he was remembering his own failings as a driver—the turn signal he forgot to switch off, the times he changed lanes and didn’t see a car in his blind spot, or the series of drunk-driving, single car accidents he survived six years before my first driving lesson, at a time when my parents struggled with finances much more than they would reveal to my sisters and me. I don’t know what altered him in those quiet moments in the car. Something in his thoughts changed him though. In a conceding tone he dragged out the word, “W-e-l-l,” then he would pause and make noises in the back of his throat, as if he were rearranging his attitude. He’d continue with a shrug and hold out forgiveness, “Eh, maybe he’s an old guy.”

Peterson Toscano promotes justice and equality through stories about LGBTQ issues, privilege, the Bible, and climate change. He explores gender non-confirming Bible characters in his new film: Transfigurations. He's part of the Porch community, and you can find more here: petersontoscano.com

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