Friday, May 12, 2017

Driving Mister Bill

Bill, my driving instructor, bore an uncanny resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson, right down to his ubiquitous cigarette holder.

If you don't know who Hunter S. Thompson was, let me give you a brief introduction. Thompson was the counterculture creator of "gonzo journalism," a style of writing in which the reporter becomes involved with a story to such a degree that he or she ends up becoming an integral part of the action. He was something of a folk hero in the 60's and 70's, an edgy writer who served as the inspiration for Doonesbury's "Uncle Duke" character. He once went so far as to tell Garry Trudeau, the comic's creator, that he would set Trudeau on fire if the two ever met.

Bill, on the other hand, worked for the Tennessee Driving School on Summer Avenue in Memphis. He was originally from Detroit, a factor which most definitely influenced his driving techniques, but he had relocated to Memphis some years before he took me on as a student, and he knew the city upside down. Bill was absolutely unshakable, and that was one of the reasons he succeeded at his job. The other reason, I always thought, was that he had a biting but strangely likeable sense of humor.

Nothing phased Bill. I was a somewhat tentative driver initially, but on my first lesson, Bill took me out onto Summer Avenue, a rather major road in our neighborhood, full of commercial distractions and lots of traffic lights. He was patient, funny, and gave me all kinds of pointers: using the car's hood to align where I was in the traveling lane, watching whether people's wheels were moving at intersections, looking over my shoulder when backing up, that sort of thing. The lessons he taught me must have stuck, because I use them all even to this day.

Humor came in handy during my driving lessons. I recall one day that I stalled a manual transmission car at the intersection of Poplar Avenue and Yates Road, and I couldn't figure out how to start it. The problem was that I had the car in the wrong gear, but Bill sat there patiently as I was practically reduced to tears, while impatient motorists behind me began to show evidence of their discontent. By the time we got back home, I was laughing at myself, but I never made that mistake again, and Bill never reminded me of it.

Probably my favorite Bill memory was during an early morning lesson, when we were traveling westbound over a viaduct on Chelsea Avenue, a heavily industrial section of Memphis. Out of nowhere, another motorist suddenly ran out in front of me. I applied the brakes quickly but carefully, thereby avoiding a collision, but Bill shook his head and said, without missing a beat, "Next time, hit the SOB." I laughed, he laughed, and we drove downtown to continue the lesson.

Bill was not what you would call politically correct, and he had entire categories of drivers whom he believed should be monitored and avoided at all costs. The problem was, his list encompassed the vast majority of drivers on the road, in effect all of us, so as with many things I heard back in those days, I took that advice with a grain of salt. I don't think he meant all that stuff, anyway --  even at the time, it seemed more for comic effect.

My time with Bill was brief, but I thanked him mightily when within a decade of his lessons, I found myself commuting on some of the nation's busiest highways in and around Chicago and Los Angeles. Bill was actually very good at what he did, and some of his pointers came in especially handy when dealing with the inherent whims and weirdness of urban traffic. It's almost as if he wanted you to get inside the heads of other drivers and anticipate what they might do. Whatever his method, it worked, and before long, I found myself driving all over the place, beginning what would become a lifetime of urban exploration.

So thanks, Bill, wherever you are. I don't know if you're still alive, but if you are, I hope your driving days have been uneventful, that you haven't skidded in the rain, and that you still have your cigarette holder. Without your tutelage, I might never have driven past the city limits.