Monday, November 12, 2012

Trip to Goshen

Little Babe, my seventeen-year-old son, is a natural born driver.

The first (and only) of my three children with this proclivity, he received his learner's permit last summer, two months after his sixteenth birthday. Living in Europe for the past six years, 28-year-old Big Babe has no use for driving; planes, the U-Bahn, S-Bahn and Eurail take him where he needs to go. Similarly, 24-year-old Middle Babe, living in our Manhattan apartment, has not been particularly motivated to acquire her license, satisfied as she is with subways, taxis and car rides with her Gentleman Caller.

It's not that he fantasizes about getting his own wheels. Little Babe is captivated by the prospect of the open road and the promise of cross-country trips with friends.  Like me, he equates driving with freedom. Getting behind the wheel, he attaches the radio's auxiliary cable to his iPod and a curated musical journey commences.

"Cake has the best driving music!" he proclaimed this past Friday as their wry and mournful song, "Wheels" filled our vehicle while we drove over the Tappan Zee bridge on our way upstate, wailing the song's final lament in unison: "Why you say you/Are not in love with me?" Minutes later, he switched tracks and we were rocking out to David Bowie's buoyant "Modern Love," taking turns with the call-and-response chorus: "Never gonna fall for Modern Love (walks beside me)/ Modern Love (walks on by)/ Modern Love (gets me to the church on time)/ Modern Love (terrifies me)/Modern Love (makes me party)/Modern Love (puts my trust in God and man)."

So exuberant are our music-drenched journeys that I sometimes feel as if our destinations are incidental; the spatial equivalents of Hitchcock's MacGuffins.

Yet some destinations are essential, for instance, Goshen, NY -- the setting for Little Babe's pending road test.

A bit of background: after racking up more than 80 hours on the road (30 more than the required 50) and having completed the mandatory five-hour pre-licensing course (twice), Little Babe was crushed when his appointment in Goshen had to be cancelled two weeks ago because our Honda had no gas... and neither did any of the nearby gas stations in post-Sandy New York City.

In the context of Hurricane trauma, Little Babe's cancelled road test was a minor inconvenience, still, it was disappointing. The cancellation also rendered our loopy adventure the previous night -- when we journeyed to a driving school in a terrifying and remote Bronx neighborhood that administered the mandatory pre-licensing test after discovering that Little Babe's safety certificate from the previous summer had expired two months earlier -- idiotic, dangerous and unnecessary.

The cancellation of Little Babe's road test further meant a six-week wait time for a new appointment, which stood to delay Little Babe's dream of driving to his high school by more than a month.

In the manner of mothers everywhere, I was certain that through sheer ingenuity and tenacity, I could bypass the system that stood to make my kid miserable.

As I saw it, there were two problems: the lack of gas and a far-off road test appointment.

I found a solution to the long wait for the reassignment of Little Babe's road test by engaging an instructor at an upstate driving school with access to a special DMV website that had immediate road test slots.

The solution to our gas-less Honda and hours-long gas lines at city stations was a red, gallon-sized jerry can located at an all-but boarded up Sunoco station in Northwest Philadelphia on Election Day where I had gone with a busload of Obama-Biden volunteers to get out the vote. (Based on my research, there was not a single such can to be had in Manhattan in the week following the hurricane.)

Once home, I made multiple trips by foot to the BP station at W110th Street with my little can -- nicknamed Geraldine -- managing to shlep enough gas to drive to Goshen and back, if necessary. (On Friday afternoon, I found another Sunoco station along I-87, this one with open pumps and no lines. The experience of refueling my car was strangely moving.)

Goshen is as pretty and serene a road test setting as one could hope for, a terrain dramatically different from our Morningside Heights neighborhood. Though an hour's drive from the city, we chose it as Little Babe's test site for all the reasons a new driver might prefer a suburban setting for his driving test. And then there's the familiarity factor. Having spent every summer of his life in the neighboring town of Monroe, Little Babe feels at home in Goshen, the setting of the Great American Weekend, which takes over the town square every Fourth of July.

And so, we headed to Goshen twice over the past few days in preparation for Little Babe's rescheduled road test, first on Friday afternoon, then yesterday morning. These repeat trips gave us four hours of singing at the top of our lungs, punctuated by music-fueled conversation and a rushed shopping expedition to the Target in Monroe, NY, which is drenched with memories of shopping trips for school and summer camp.

While I avoided the Palisades Parkway on Friday because of my concern of downed trees, we drove up  the parkway yesterday. Just a few miles along, I saw that my fears had been well-founded; many trees had indeed fallen and the usually lush foliage was distressingly skimpier than usual. Still, the abundant sunshine and empty lanes imparted the magical quality of the open road -- the horizon beckoned, adventure winked at us, anything and everything was possible.

Younger than Big Babe by eleven years and seven years his sister's junior, Little Babe is my most mysterious and surprising child. Middle Babe has frequently commented on the many phases of her younger brother's life, the way he has morphed from one all-consuming passion or persona to another. Big Babe is continually entertained by the adventures of Little Babe, viewing him as a one-man reality show. Even as a musician, he has evolved from the affable cellist with blond curls to an dark-haired indie rocker who plays and composes music in his red-walled bedroom for sometimes upwards of eight hours a day. In a family marked by creativity, Little Babe's artistry has a particularly intense and focused quality. A staunch individualist, he is teaching me the limitations of my parental influence as we zero in on the final stretch of his college application process, asserting his right to make -- or curtail -- his own choices.

On our ride upstate yesterday morning, Little Babe and I spoke about the radically different childhoods that each of the Three Babes have had. Lost in the landscape of memory, flashes of Big Babe's infancy in our Upper West Side high rise, nearly 30 years ago, blended with memories of Middle Babe's toddlerhood in our beloved Westchester house. More recent images from Little Babe's babyhood in Jerusalem and our fourth-floor apartment overlooking Columbia University washed over me with the passing scenery of our Sunday morning drive in the 21st Century here and now.

Remembrances of my children as their younger selves blended with the faces of friends, the interiors of homes and hundreds of Shabbat tables, the lush paradise of public parks and the sheltering interiors of libraries, museums and schools. I recalled dozens of birthday parties and innumerable sweet bedtimes and Sunday adventures. The streetscapes of cities we loved and lived in formed a customized map of our family's wanderings -- Jerusalem, Boston, London, New Rochelle, Oxford, Great Neck, Rome, Monroe, Paris, Goshen, Amsterdam, Venice, Riverdale, Prague, Cambridge, Berlin, Philadelphia, Towson, Nyack, Vienna, Middlebury, Budapest and most of all,  the kinetic, magnificent and newly-vulnerable island of Manhattan.

My older children are now graduate students and my youngest is a college-bound high school senior. A singer-songwriter, Little Babe has just produced his first LP -- The Smell of Guitars and Magic Marker -- and has been posting videos of his music on his YouTube channel for nearly two years. A natural born driver, he avidly awaits his rescheduled road test, cannot await to park our black Honda, festooned with the bright orange parking permit, in the SAR High School parking lot. On his way to and from school, he will listen to his favorite songs because driving without music is like eating without tasting the food.

Little Babe is seventeen. His future beckons, an open road twinkling with promise, singing of freedom. A driver's license is his key to the open road but music is his redemption.

This is not another blog post by a pre-empty nester. I fail to see the emotional drama in that transition, besides, in the new economic and social landscape, adult children are increasingly living at home. Since her graduation from college two years ago, Middle Babe has moved back into her childhood room and with the frequent (and appreciated) visitation of her Gentleman Caller, our nest is hardly empty of chicks.

This moment is about something else. Part of it has to do with the altered consciousness of a city in the wake of a devastating act of nature. Never again will I take for granted the luxury of being able to drive my car up to a gas pump and refuel. Never can I forget the misfortune suffered by other residents of this region, nor my responsibility to help restore the normalcy, safety and comfort of life for them.

My urgent quest for gasoline was motivated by Little Babe's impending road test, therefore, the scarcity of this resource forms a backdrop for the personal drama of this moment, which is about beholding the transition of my youngest son into a man. The outward signs have been there for a while, but over the course of the past week, within the cocoon of our car as we drove to and from Goshen, I encountered a newly mature version of my youngest child, understood his emerging self in a more nuanced way.

Hints and flashes of Little Babe's metamorphosis have been evident in the sophistication of his lyrics and the insightful sensitivity of his songs. It is there in his stubbornly individualistic college application process. A boy goes to sleep and wakes up a man. His mother bears witness, humbled and proud, wiping away the tears that gather at the creases of her eyes as she recalls the curly-haired moppet, now the muscular young man with sideburns, taking command of the steering wheel, charting his futureward course.

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