Five Meditations on the New York State Driver's Manual

I.
Parallel Parking
Sorting through his mail Tuesday afternoon, Max learned that he’d won the bid to rewrite the New York State driver’s manual. He phoned the Department of Motor Vehicles in Albany to confirm the good news.

"Yes, it is true," said his contact. Her voice approximated a computer-generated prompt, void of emotion. "There are 11 million drivers in New York. We are printing 30 million copies of the manual, mandatory for every driver. You will write a guaranteed best seller. You will outsell the Bible. Congratulations. Please have the first draft on our desk by this time next week."

An unpublished novelist, Max was thrilled. He would give plot to the New York driver’s manual. He would flesh out character and setting. He intended to make this the world’s first literary driver’s manual.

Max was so excited about winning the bid that he sprawled on the couch and took a nap. He dreamed that David Mamet had been commissioned to rewrite the Utah state driver’s manual.

"You," went the introduction. "You’ve got—what—a car. You want to drive. It rolls. You want to drive the car. You want to make it roll. But with this—with this desire comes responsibility. Big fucking responsibility."

The state of Utah had just meekly summoned David Mamet for certain revisions when Max woke from his nap.

He shared the good news with Claire that afternoon. She looked at him blankly and nodded, and he knew that she, too, was thrilled.

She said, "That’s great, Galumph." She called him Galumph. She said, "So, get to work. I’m off to have my ring resized."

This marked the fourth Tuesday in a row that Claire was having her engagement ring resized. At first Max had suspected she suffered from fluctuating levels of water retention, but by now he had grown to hate Tuesdays and the thought that Claire might be having an affair with Vlad, the Russian jeweler who’d sold him the ring.

He decided to confront her directly. He said, "Are you having an affair with Vlad?"

Claire stared at him. Her response was strong and defensive, but it was not immediate. She said, "Oh, please." She left.

He stared into the empty apartment with a look that neither confirmed nor denied that Claire had neither confirmed nor denied his question.

II.
Passing on the Left
Two months before, Max had narrowed his search to two rings in Vlad’s shop on 47th Street. Vlad had said, "This ring looks good on finger. I show you. Mother, let me put ring on finger."

Vlad’s mother, a blind dyspeptic dwarf, hit her forehead on the glass counter as she scooted off her stool to present her finger. She smiled at a wall, her forehead trickling blood, as Vlad presented the ring, holding his mother’s hand close to Max, which caused her to stand on her toes, and Vlad looked like he was pronouncing his battered mother the new undisputed and beat-up boxing champion. Max chose the other, untouted ring.

He’d wanted to propose to Claire on her birthday—at dinner in a restaurant, some clever presentation, the ring hidden inside an oyster or jutting out from her crème brulée—but he couldn’t wait that long. And so on the night of his purchase, as she was washing the dishes, Max took a knee and tried to slip the ring over her blue rubber glove. The ring wedged on the covered fingertip, but Claire got the message. They declared their love for one another as the dishwashing liquid penetrated the pan where Max had burned the lasagna.

Even without the glove, the ring was a bit tight. They visited Vlad the next day. He resized as they waited. Max stared at Vlad, who looked up frequently from his workbench to stare at Claire. Vlad’s mother stared at nothing but told them that in Minsk during the war she had passed as a Catholic in order to avoid deportation.

"We are Jew," the mother said. "Very special people. Much pain." She wore a bandage on her forehead.

Vlad said, "My mother think only Jew know pain. Mother, many people feel pain. Many people pass. Gay people pass like straight people. International people pass like American people to get job. American people pass like Canadian people to have safe vacation in Europe. Terrorist people pass like innocent people to do access, to do bad. You see this, Mother?"

His mother said, "No, Vlad. No. I don’t see."

III.
Aggressive Drivers & Road Rage
Max found the existing driver’s manual too straightforward. He decided it needed texture.

He began to write: "In the end, you turn off the ignition. Your vehicle settles. Take a breath and exhale as you also settle. Collect any personal belongings. Exit the vehicle. Begin the next part of your life.

"But first: To drive or not to drive, at this juncture, is a moot question. Your possession of this driver’s manual in your hands—or perhaps in one of those kitchen cookbook holders as you prepare supper—reflects your determination to drive, or perhaps to prioritize driving over making supper.

"The best ride is an uneventful ride. James Dean, Mary Jo Kopechne, Jackson Pollack, Isadora Duncan: alas, their rides were all too eventful. The best ride: getting from point A to point B. In driving dreams begin responsibility. Just say no to cell phones. Radio volume low so as to hear the siren call of emergency vehicles.

"Beware the aggressive driver; give him space; this is not a competition. Beware the wobbly driver; give her space; this is not an arcade game. Beware the jeweler named Vlad with which your fiancée spends too much time adjusting; give him space; this really should not be a double engagement."

Writing rarely stirred Max into a frenzy, but when it did he flung his pen across the room. He flung his pen across the room. He grabbed his coat and stormed out of the apartment.

On the subway he wondered how many other men were on their way to confront their women, how many women their men. He noted the irony of a subway train filled with road-raged passengers, all being scooted through the city’s tunnels by a conductor who, no doubt, was having a marvelous day.

Which got him thinking. He fished a pen and a pad of paper from his coat pockets and began to write:

"In earlier editions of the New York driver’s manual, we advised to avoid eye contact with those showing signs of road rage. We now wish to amend our approach.

"We say: Confront road rage directly. Stare down the culprit. Let him know that he does not own the road. Show him that while the road is necessarily a shared entity, your transportation choice is your chariot, your kingdom, your divine right, and whatever jalopy he chooses to drive is his, and that never the twain should or shall meet."

IV.
Avoiding Collisions with Deer
Max was three stations from 47th Street. He hated multitasking, this suddenly simultaneous goal of rewriting the driver’s manual and confronting Claire and Vlad. But he was on a roll, a balance of inspiration and perspiration fueling his words.

"Most accidents involving deer and vehicles," he scribbled, "occur at dawn and dusk in October, November, and December—the deer breeding season, when deer travel about most actively. Sometimes, though, the more amorous deer are on the prowl in other months, such as April, when potential coupling occurs, mostly on Tuesday evenings, under the false pretense of claiming to leave the cave to have their hooves adjusted.

"In these anomalies, which these days are sadly all-too-frequent, you should actively pursue the offending ungulate. Speed up. Catch him in your headlights. Make haste to disrupt the Tuesday rhythms and destroy the lair, all bejeweled and unfortunately, upon research after your own purchase, closer to retail than wholesale prices.

"As an alternate approach, if you see deer on the road or in a jewelry store, use extreme caution. Put yourself in the hooves of a deer engaged in the act of breeding. You’d likely bolt, too. Sneak up. Take pictures. And then accelerate.

"If you are properly insured by a legitimate company, your rates should remain unchanged. Both your claim and, should it come to that, your defense in court can be described convincingly as an act of nature."

V.
Sharing the Road with Horseback Riders
The train had just left 42nd Street as Max wrote, "You should not mistake a deer for a horse. Both are ungulates, but a horse is a horse, and a deer is a deer. A horseback rider is subject to the same rules and regulations as those in vehicles that use wheels. It is illegal to honk your horn when approaching or passing a horse, unless you have just bagged a deer."

He surfaced at 47th Street, weaving through the representatives of eastern Europe who had found employment in the jewelry district to eek out a living selling condensed African carbon. One way or another, Max intended to assure that his diamond would become conflict-free.

Vlad’s blind mother’s face was in the window. She frightened Max. He wished she would wear sunglasses. Peering around her hair, he spied Claire on one side of the counter, Vlad on the other, their torsos angled toward one another, the power of carats and ingots shining through the display case to illuminate their treacherous, smiling, flirty faces.

And there Max froze. All rules and regulations suddenly suspended. He knew not what to do. He broke his gaze from Claire and focused on the face of Vlad’s mother, her milky eyes, the weathered history-preserving topography of her skin. If this old woman could survive Minsk in wartime, he decided, and now sit in a window on 47th Street like a stoic and wise Indian chief, then his chances were also good.

Why was he doing this? Not just survival. Survival was the unifying factor in the living universe. The human variable—despite or maybe because of corrupted dignity—was the will to live a little, too.

Finally, though, it was not confrontation or cowardice or courage that propelled him into the store. He just wanted to be done with it.

He pushed hard on the front door, stepped inside, and walked toward them. Claire and Vlad lost their gleam as they turned to face Max. He began paraphrasing the driver’s manual.

"A U-turn is any turn executed so as to proceed in the opposite direction. Do not attempt a U-turn on a highway or in a jewelry store unless absolutely necessary. Claire, this is one of those absolutely necessary moments. Step away from the Russian. Declare your allegiance. Come home and live with me forever, or suck borscht for the rest of your life. The choice is yours. But enough. Enough. Decide. Decide now."

Claire looked at him at first with surprise and then, her chin quivering, with defensive anger and then with what Max later decided was reluctant respect.

She approached Max, took his hand, and slowly lowered the length of a gold necklace onto his palm, the intricate glittering loops chilling his sweaty skin.

She said, "I’m a day early. And we’ll talk about your problems with trust later. But happy birthday anyway."

He stared at the small mound of gold.

Vlad said, "You’re welcome, Mrs. Claire. Happy birthday, Mr. Max. I wish you happy life together. Many babies."

Max slowly followed Claire to the entrance.

As he passed her, Vlad’s mother said, "People pass all around, all time, always. And sometimes they pass for themselves. This, Mr. Max. This is best way."