I remember when I was little and living with my mother (and a sister, I think) in El Puerto de la Libertad, El Salvador. I was probably around 4 or 5, maybe (it frustrates me that I can’t remember much about my childhood, but this I remember). We lived in a single room adobe “house” on the edge of a pretty wide street. Not many wide streets those days in El Puerto. Any ways, across from our house was a gated repair shop-patio for passenger buses owned by a family living a few houses down from us. This family purchased old yellow school buses in the US, drove them down to El Salvador, fixed them up a bit, painted them, and put them to work bringing people back-and-forth from the capital city – San Salvador – or other cities around El Puerto. They made a ton of money doing this. Of course, their house was about 100 times the size of our house.
Every now and again I would get lucky and pick up a broken piece of something that came off one of the buses they worked on in the shop across from us. I would try to put together my own “assembled” car, or bus or truck from the parts I collected. Of course, I was never able to complete anything with the parts I collected.
I loved seeing the big buses come and go from that shop. I loved the smell of grease, gasoline, and diesel escape fumes. I swore I would become a bus driver when I grew up. For a kid, seeing the creative paint jobs on the outside of the buses, the details they painted or put inside them, and the loud stereo (all public transport buses in El Salvador MUST have loud music in them, else they don’t attract passengers) all made me want to drive one of them back-and-forth from any city around El Puerto.
That yearning to drive has always accompanied me.
When I was older and living in NY I was always paying attention to how my operated their cars, what their feet did, how the steering wheel and all the signals worked, etc. We were all living on Clinton St., Hempstead (it’s crazy that I still remember the adress and even the phone number we had then). Clinton Street connects Hempstead to the much-richer and wider-cleaner-street-having Garden City. It has two lanes coming and going, and our house was right on the edge of that big street. When my brothers arrived in the afternoon or evening from work they seldom found a parking space right in front of the house. I always volunteered to move their cars to the front of the house as soon as a space became available. I was their valet, and I loved it. I gave me the chance to drive, even if it was only 10 or 15 feet.
When I was 14yrs old my older sister, Mayra, was very pregnant. One day we were both home with no one else, just the two of us. Out of nowhere she tells me that she’s not feeling well and that we needed to get to the hospital. I immediately got excited. Not because she was having a baby (sorry lil’ nephew!), but because there was no one else to drive her to the hospital! I was the only one. Sure, an ambulance would have made the whole thing much safer, but there was no way I was going to offer up that suggestion. As a family we are not fond of calling the Fire Dept or ambulances when emergencies arise. We like to take care of them in other ways….like letting the no-license-having 14-year-old drive through traffic to get a pregnant woman to the emergency room.
Of course, I had no experience on any major street behind the wheel and did not know if I could stay in the lane, let alone know how to properly use the gas and brake pedals. The car was was a beige, two-door Chevy Monza, and fully automatic. I did not have to worry about a third pedal or a stick in the middle. Unlike my older brother’s Chevy Nova, steering the Monza felt like putting your fingers in warm butter. The Chevy Nova, on the other hand, would make Arnold Schwarzenegger sweat while making a right turn on any street.
Nassau County Hospital is about a 30-minute drive from where we lived. Getting to it with my sister and her unborn baby did not phase me. What did get me a bit nervous was that I had to drive through Garden City. I had always heard horror stories (some well-founded) of police stopping cars that drove from Hempstead through Garden City on suspicion that they were up to now good. So there I was, pregnant sister on the passenger seat and the whole road in front of my steering wheel. I don’t think I ever made it past 30-mph given my sisters constant urging to slow down while at the same time hurrying me to get her to the hospital. The whole way to the hospital I had the widest smile I can remember. It was my first time driving on real streets and not just parking cars.
My nephew was born healthy and whole….and in the hospital. My sister was alright, too. My older brothers, seeing my pride in myself for having saved the day let me drive the Monza back to the house while following close behind me. It was one of the coolest summers ever!
PS I: My sister named her newborn Jonathan. I told her I liked that name before his birth, and I am happy she used it.
PS II: By the time I got an actual NY State driver’s license I was 27yrs old. By then I had already driven 30ft U-haul and Ryder trucks through rush hour traffic in Manhattan and ridden high-speed motorcycles without wearing a helmet alongside the coast of the Pacific Ocean in El Puerto de La Libertad.