Riding With Miles and Max, My First Car
My first car was a huge old boat of a vehicle, a wine-red circa 1975 Plymouth Gran Fury found for $1100 in the inner sanctum of Newport News, VA , via the Virginian-Pilot Classifieds, when I briefly lived in Hampton with my soon-to-be-first-husband in 1988.
I named my new old car Max; he looked much like the shiny model pictured here, the same color, if a bit worse for wear.
I was twenty-six, new to Virginia and a newly minted driver; I’d failed my first driver’s test in NY after a month of driving lessons with one Miles Frommer, of American Driving Academy, an elfin man with a dark 1950s-style suit, Malcolm X eye-glasses, and a deadpan hybrid Brooklyn/ Chicago accent.
When I squinted at him behind my shades, I envisioned him as him as one of the lesser known, shorter Blues Brothers.
First you get mad, then you get sad, then you get glad, he said by way of explaining the stages of submitting to driverhood.
While we waited at stop lights he told me about his wife, an accountant, and his addiction to bread. Apparently he kept his breadbox locked in order to thwart his wheat jones.
To my mild surprise, he also felt comfortable enough, mid-way through our summer of lessons, to warn me against moving to Virginia to be with my submarine sailor boyfriend.
Not a chivalrous lot, those Navy men, he intoned blandly, in between jokes about the true nature of submariners. Thirty men go down to the sea; fifteen couples come back up.
Inappropriate humor aside, Miles was an endlessly patient teacher, who barely blinked as I faced my near paralytic fear of commandeering a ton of steel and glass along the mysterious backstreets of Kingston, NY.
Though I lived in New Paltz, Kingston housed the nearest DMV office.
Miles remained as mild and comforting as an old monk, no matter how many times he had to slam on the dual control brakes, but my DMV driving test proctor was a screamer.
Five minutes into my test I lurched the test car into the crosswalk as he screamed at me, Now you’ve killed several pedestrians! This test is over! Pull over! Pull over!
The pedestrians were hypothetical; my road test failure was not.
I waited until I’d relocated to Virginia and had a few more lessons before tackling the driver’s test in Denbigh rather than Hampton on the advice of a new friend.
She was right.
After simply driving straight for a few miles I was asked to turn right, turn left and then simply park.
No parallel parking, no crossing lanes of oncoming traffic, no chance of crosswalk carnage, no screaming or forehead veins bulging.
The first time I drove my new old car alone, to my temp job with a VA Beach architect, I thought I’d fly over the guardrail of the first curving overpass I had to drive at 55 MPH.
I white-knuckled it all the way there and back to Hampton. I never stayed late at that office to avoid driving in the dark.
My fiance found that hilarious.
A month later, when another young woman was kidnapped from the office parking lot after hours and murdered, I thanked my fear-based intuition
Almost everywhere I went, especially car washes, and junk yards where we looked for esoteric car parts, elderly Black men approached me to admire old Max.
I repeatedly heard some form or other of: Young lady, what are you doing with my car? or Now, THAT’S my car.
I loved hearing the stories of their glory days; as they talked I could recall seeing fine young Black men cooly driving similar cars.
With one hand on the steering wheel, they’d glide through the streets of Poughkeepsie back when I was a teenager shopping for 45s at the Black Power record shop, deep at the far end of the Main Mall .
The tiny record shop wasn’t really called Black Power, but the two men who ran it favored the tight pants, leather jackets, perfect Afros, Black Power fist Afro-combs, and the revolutionary literature of the Black Panther movement.
When I went there with my older, Black boyfriend the two of them ignored me as they exchanged dap with him.
When I shopped there alone the taller man would flirt with me, and ask me to repeat everything I said; the smaller, older man usually folded his arms over his chest and gave me the side-eye.
I chalked it up to my age, my racial ambiguity, and my slight stutter; I kept coming back, always averting my gaze from the long sticks of incense on the counter labeled, “Pussy”.
One of the undocumented features of my vehicle was the wine-red roof upholstery that had loosened over the years and hung down over the back seat like an exotic tent curtain that made me think of the inside of the magic bottle in “I Dream of Jeannie”.
The swooping swathes of maroon velveteen gave the car a funky, slightly trippy vibe; I always felt like I should be wearing patchouli, fringed leather, and feather earrings while listening to Chaka Khan and Rufus amid the haze of Nag Champa incense.
I felt safe traveling in that outsize car; it really felt like a big old land yacht rolling down the freeway, music playing (8 track!), it’s big old prow parting the air before me.
My then-husband was an impatient man who didn’t possess the values of conservation and preservation; when something went wrong with Max after two years he relentlessly pressured me to trade it in towards a Saturn.
I should have seen it for the red flag it was; but I was still blindly loyal, and in love. I missed quite a few of them.
The Saturn was new and shiny and candy-apple red, but not the same as old Max, not by a long shot.