I’ve been driving for over thirty-five years. But, to this day, I have serious doubts as to whether or not I actually passed my Driver’s Test.
I had failed my Driver’s Test twice, once when I was eighteen, and once when I was nineteen. Driving is not essential in my hometown of Toronto. The city has an elaborate public transportation system. You wait ten minutes and something comes. Mind you, in the winter, those ten minutes can feel extremely long. (I only have to write about waiting for a bus in Toronto in the winter and my toes reflexively start to curl up.)
Driving challenges many of my not strongest areas. I don’t see very well. My reflexes aren’t the best. And I have this irrational fear of running people over. Well, maybe not that irrational, considering my eyesight and my reflexes
And yet, I wanted to drive. Like everyone else. (Even people who are okay with not being like everyone else are not okay with not being like everyone else all the time.)
The Driver’s Test freaked me out. The main Department of Motor Vehicles (or whatever it’s called in Canada) was located on Keele Street. Keele Street is a major Toronto thoroughfare, possibly the majorest. At least, in terms of its breadth – Keele Street is four lanes in both directions. Most Toronto streets, even those spanning the entire length of the city, are two lanes.
My first Driver’s Test failure is an agonizing blur of humiliation and shame. I do, however, remember exactly why I failed the second time.
I’m driving along Keele Street. The Driving Instructor orders me, in a flat, emotionless voice, to make a left turn.
I immediately jump into action. I flick on my “Left Turn” signal, I check the side-view mirror, I turn my head to check the “Blind Spot.” Perfect.
I then proceed to the lane closest to the middle stripe, the lane you turn left from, and I wait for the oncoming traffic to clear.
And I wait. And I wait. And I wait.
Remember, Keele Street is four lanes in both directions. Having studied my Instruction Manual, I know that, before I can execute my left turn, I have to wait until the lanes I’m intending to cross are clear. I’m not permitted to cut cars off – in any of the lanes, in this case, in any of those four lanes – or I’ll fail.
Traffic during my Driver’s Test is brisk. Cars keep coming from the opposite direction, maybe not in all the four oncoming lanes at once, but in one, and often two. In my mind, I’m thinking, “I can’t make my ‘Left’ until all four lanes are clear.” And they never are.
We’re sitting there, maybe five minutes. Not a sound in the car, except for the rhythmic clicking of my “Left Turn” signal.
Finally, the Driving Instructor, his eyes rolling and his patience long gone, cries,
The guy fails me on the spot. He didn’t even wait to get back to the place. He flunks me right there, in the “Left Turn” lane on Keele Street.
Flash Forward: Eight years.
I’m now twenty-seven. Over the years, I’ve racked up many noteworthy accomplishments. I’d had a weekly column in the newspaper, I had written and performed on radio, I had written on television “specials” for my brother and his partner, Lorne Michaels, as well as for the iconic Canadian comedy team, Wayne and Shuster. I had my own apartment. I paid bills. I made my own dentist appointments.
But I didn’t have my Driver’s License.
I decided to try again, starting with driving lessons. A Romanian guy taught me. His name was Czeron Lazdins. I liked that name. It seemed sturdy, like a man who had weathered the hardships of the Old Country and plodded his way to a better life.
A sturdy driving teacher would get me through my Driver’s Test. I put my faith in Czeron Lazdins.
Czeron Lazdins taught me an important lesson, applicable not just to driving, but to life. He analogized the driving situation with boxing. He said, (read this with a Romanian accent): “Some boxers, they see they’re going to get hit, they turn their heads, and their hands fly up – crazy moves, out of control – to protect themselves. Other boxers, they’re going to get hit – the tiniest adjustment – and the punch passes by. That’s boxing. That’s driving.”
I make an appointment for my test. Not on Keele Street. Bad luck, that street. I’ll take my test at a smaller DMV, on College Street – two lanes, both ways. College Street has streetcar tracks, which can be slick in the rain, but I feel ready for anything. If I skid, I know what to do. The tiniest adjustment.
In the meantime, I mention to a producer I know at the CBC, Canada’s national television network, that I’m taking my Driver’s Test for the third time. The producer, a nice man named Ross, works in the Public Affairs area (rather than in what they called “Light Entertainment”). Ross is currently producing a documentary-type series called Of All People.
Of All People was a show focusing on, hopefully interesting, real life oddities. A man fuels his tractor with chicken droppings – they do a segment on him. A woman grows a potato shaped like the head of Conservative Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. She gets a segment. You get the idea – a Public Interest show about Canadian weirdness.
Flash Forward: It’s the morning of my Driver’s Test. My apartment intercom buzzes. I say, “Who is it?” They tell me. I buzz them in.
Who it was, was a producer and a two-man camera crew from Of All People. They’ve come to film my final driving lesson and my actual test. I say okay. What can I do? They’re already there.
So there you have it. I took my Driver’s Test on national television. And I passed.
It’s possible, because I’m a performer of sorts, that I “rose to the occasion when the lights were on.” Maybe I drove like I’d never driven before. The thing is, I don’t remember it that way. I drove the same way I always did – overly cautious, and none too smooth. I also had the added challenge of trying not to run over the camera crew, as they swooped in and out around the car, capturing my every move.
I’m thinking about the Driving Instructor who had, somehow, agreed to let my Driver’s Test to be filmed. Consider his situation. This segment was scheduled to be broadcast across the country. We were hooked up with “neck microphones”, and everything. The pressure was on both of us. I mean, what kind of “downer” television would it have been if he had failed me yet again?
There was also the possibility that, if I failed, the show would eliminate my Driver’s Test story, and the Driving Instructor would never get to be on television.
The guy had no choice. He had to pass me.
So he did.
I don’t know, to me, it wasn’t a real “pass.” It was more like an honorarial television “pass.”
Flash Forward (for the last time): It’s one week later. I’m pulling out of the Mazda dealership. I have just bought my first car – a bright orange Mazda, with a black hardtop roof. It’s a Hallowe’en car. And I’m very proud of it.
There’s a deluging downpour. Puppies are floating down the street. The windshield wipers don’t help; you can’t see six inches in front of you. You know how, when you’re learning to drive, there always has to be a licensed driver sitting in the car with you? This is what I was thinking at this exciting, hard-fought-for transitional moment.
“I’m sitting behind the wheel of my new Mazda. I can’t see a damn thing. And I’ve never driven alone before in my entire life.”
And off I went.