I did not learn to drive until I was nineteen. My mother tried to teach me on our old Chevy Chevette when I was sixteen, but I couldn’t figure out the clutch. I found the experience of stalling out so humiliating that I gave up. Three years later I was sick of riding a bike everywhere, and I signed up for lessons from AAA. That was when I met Gabe. Gabe was a 62 year-old ex-marine with a crew cut and a barrel chest. When I climbed into the AAA Student Driver Car I could smell the early 1950s on him. As we began our lesson, he explained to me that a good car was like a good woman: if you let go of the wheel you should be able to trust it to go straight. When I had to slow for two black kids on bikes crossing against a light, he explained, “It’s not they’re fault. They’re just black.”
At nineteen, I was not prepared to call a 62 year-old ex-marine on his racism or antiquated notions of women’s independence. Plus he was an immensely patient guy. He had me driving comfortably in a couple lessons. As long as we avoided certain subjects, we could spend a pleasant hour together. An hour, however, is a long time to spend avoiding subjects, and during lesson three he asked, “So what would you like to do with yourself, Bill?”
I glanced at my companion. I suspected he held the arts in much the same regard as working women and black kids on bikes. Still, he might as well know the truth.
“Actually, Gabe, I’d like to be a writer.”
“Well, that’s great.”
I was humbled by his reply. But Gabe wasn’t done.
“You see, you’re an American, Bill. And in every American there’s an A, and an M, and an E, and an R . . .”
For the record, Gabe spoke slowly, and so I had sufficient time to wonder, “Is he actually going to spell it all the way out for me?”
“. . . and an I, and a C, and an A, and an N. And do you know what that means, Bill?”
I told him I did not know what this meant.
“It means that at the end of every American, there’s an ‘I CAN.’”
I was sorry for all the mean things I’d thought about Gabe. I’m a sucker for optimism, no matter how it’s packaged. Plus, it’s good to remember that if you’re quiet long enough people will eventually tell you who they really are.
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