On the Road: Driving Miss Sophie

by

The Vega, preferred car of teen drivers everywhere in the 1970s.

By Annette Hinkle

“So what do you do if she goes out of control and starts speeding toward a tree?”

It was a curious question, and one that was being asked of me by my husband, Adam,.

“Pull up on the emergency brake?” I asked tentatively, as if I was the one who was new at this.

“No, put it into neutral,” he said.

“But wouldn’t the emergency brake work too?” I countered.

“Um, yeah…. I guess it would,” he said.

This conversation transpired in my still almost new Subaru Forester on a cold and dreary Tuesday a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the blizzard that wasn’t. Adam was sitting in the back seat, I was in the passenger seat, and my 15-year-old daughter Sophie was, gulp, behind the wheel.

We were in East Hampton in the parking lot of the old Sterns department store (anyone remember that place?). It was the first lesson of driving 101 for my daughter, who will be of permit-age in just two months time.

She’s been itching to drive in recent months. Like many newly discovered desires at this age, it seems to be largely hormonal. She has the road rules book to study and she made a point of telling me that the week before when her friend got her learner’s permit from the DMV in Riverhead, her mom let her drive all the way back to East Hampton.

“Really? From Riverhead?” I asked envisioning the madness of allowing a rank novice to maneuver through the traffic in those parts.

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “She already knows how to drive. Her mom lets her. A lot of my friends already know how to drive.”

I didn’t realize this was a thing — letting kids drive before they got their permit, but apparently I was in the “slacker mommy” category for having not handed over the keys to my $30,000 car while she was still in middle school.

Which is why we were here, in this decrepit parking lot, on a cold and miserable March day when it didn’t snow.

It’s funny, but after all these years, I had never ventured off Pantigo Road to explore the Stern’s parking lot. Frankly, I wasn’t much impressed.

Adam, who came out here as a kid, remembers Sterns as it once was — a vibrant department store with an expansive asphalt parking lot where a teenage driver could do donuts and three point turns to his or her heart’s content.

Call it nostalgia, or that tendency of giant things from youth to look tiny when you revisit them as an adult, either way, this parking lot was much smaller then he made it out to be while talking it up. It also could have something to do with the fact that over the years of abandonment, the brambly bits of tangled flora ringing the lot have devoured much more of it than we could presently see.

Still, we had to make do with what we had, and I instructed Sophie to step on the brake and put the car in drive.

Immediately, Adam piped up with other instructions.

“Move your seat forward, adjust your mirrors, you don’t have to slam on the brakes — remember to feather them….”

A true backseat driver. So we switched places and I sat in back with my mouth shut.

I have to say, Sophie is a pretty confident driver. She didn’t punch the gas with such gusto that she pinned our ears back and was gentle on the brakes to avoid whiplash. She drove in a left hand circle around that parking lot until it got boring. Then she did it the other way. The whole experience reminded me of those dopey kiddie car rides at a fly-by-night carnival. Round and round until the quarter runs out.

I thought we should try pulling into a parking space, until I realized all the yellow lines on the pavement had faded into oblivion decades ago. We couldn’t even practice parallel parking because there was nothing really parallel left what with the climbing bittersweet looming at the lot’s edges like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.

Pretty quickly, we had exhausted all our driving 101 lessons for the old Stern’s lot.

“We’ll try it again soon,” we assured her, “in a bigger area somewhere else.”

“Can I drive home?” she asked.

“No honey, it’s not that I don’t trust you,” I lied, “but if some other driver hits us with you behind the wheel, we could be in big trouble.”

I couldn’t blame her for wanting to test the open road. I remember what it was like to not know how to drive and feeling like the world would remain firmly shut until I did.

It’s like that in suburbia — especially rural suburbia where I came of driving age. That’s like regular suburbia but way worse because there’s only the single new housing development you live in. Which means everything else for miles around it is still, well, rural.

It was in this environment that my own first illicit under age driving experience occurred. In truth, I was the passenger and my friend Lisa was doing the driving. It was a slumber party at her house for her 15th birthday. A bunch of us were sleeping over when a knock came on the basement window of her parent’s tri-level home long around midnight.

The boyfriend of one of the girls had stopped by for a visit. He was a couple years older than us, and we couldn’t help but notice his Vega parked out front as we helped him climb in the window.

Once inside, Lisa asked if we could take it for a ride and he handed over the keys. I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I realized the lengths teenage boys will go in order to spend time with teenage girls. Lisa and I climbed out the basement window and into the Vega.

It was her party, so she did the driving. Truth is, neither of us had a clue. We had maneuvered the Vega up Evergreen Drive, down Tamarack Trail, and finally broke free of suburbia with a right onto the county road before realizing the lights weren’t on. It took another quarter mile of dark driving and a couple angry bright flashes from the one oncoming car we encountered before we finally found the knob.

And once we were free and fully lit, we had nowhere to go (another feature of suburbia). So we drove six miles to the Dayton Mall, did a lap in the deserted parking lot and headed right back home. That’s when the cop car came out of nowhere and began tailing our every turn all the way back to the house.

I was freaking out as he stuck to our bumper, waiting for us to screw up. But Lisa was cool as a cucumber and when we finally got to her house, she pulled up to the curb and parked like she lived there, which indeed, she did. The cop had stopped just short of the house to see what we were up to. He watched closely as we got out of the car. While Lisa walked calmly and confidently across her front lawn, I sprinted like a panicked and wounded gazelle, practically diving through the basement window. The cop, mercifully, did nothing and drove off. With hearts pounding, we returned the keys, the boy left, and within a year I had my own license and the freedom to go nowhere that comes along with it.

It occurs to me that Sophie’s exactly the same age I was when Lisa and I took that long-ago joyride to the mall. I’m really glad I don’t have the kind of daughter who’s likely to climb out a window and into a car at midnight to go cruising with another unlicensed driver who doesn’t know how to turn on the lights.

Between you and me, unless she happens to pick up this paper and read it for herself, this is one story from my youth that I will not be sharing with her — at least not until she officially has her license and can prove to me she knows how to parallel park.

I’ll keep you posted on that front…

 

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