“You ever been to Cielito Lindo’s down on Olvera Street? ” Ramon asked. “You been to Olvera Street, right?”

“Oh, sure,” I answered.

“Lindo’s is on Olvera Street. It’s famous. You must have eaten there.”

“I guess.”

“You guess?” He laughed. “How long you been in L.A., Mr. Devine?”

“Ten years, I think.”

He smiled. “You think?” he asked and pushed my hands into place on the steering wheel. “Remember, ten and two,” he said very softly.

“Keep going straight down Beverly. Don’t worry. You’re doing swell. You were born to drive.” He loosened his orange tie, rolled down his window and leaned his elbow on the frame.

“How old are you, my friend?”

“Forty-three,” I said, without taking my eyes from the street in front of me for even a second.

Again the laugh. He had a big, strong laugh that made him cough. “Forty-three?” He said that as if I had just told him I was a 103.

“Wow. How you been gettin’ around?”

“Taking the bus,” I said, as a red light loomed a block away.

“The bus?” he gasped. “Man, that’s mean.”

I could feel the sweat on the palms of my hand making the steering wheel wet, but I held it firmly, just as Ramon had taught me.

“Don’t rush up to a red light. It’ll be there when you get there,” he said.

Today, as the snow piles up outside, I stop typing every 20 minutes to rub my hands. It’s not the cold. The fingers that write this are older than the fingers that were on that wheel then.

“Ten and two,” he kept saying, as we pulled out onto the street in front of my house.

This is the short story of how I met Ramon Garcia, a young-looking, 10-year veteran of the Southern California Driving School in a white shirt, orange tie and chinos, and how I came to be there in that seat behind the wheel of a strange car with a strange, funny Mexican-American with peppermint breath and a big laugh that made him cough.

She, who had not yet started teaching in those days, had found herself married to an actor who had never learned to drive and was spending her days ferrying him around Los Angeles from Warner Brothers in Burbank to MGM studios in Culver City.

I would go in for auditions, and she would wait in the car and read magazines, and when I came out, she would ask, “How did it go?” That went on for a long time until she ran out of magazines and patience, and then one day she handed me a brochure from the Southern California Driving School and went on to become a teacher.

“Ten and two,” Ramon said for the 10th time, as we approached the first red light on the corner of Melrose and La Cienega. I had walked this street hundreds of times. This was the first time I had driven a car on it.

“It’s like a clock, that wheel,” he said, “your left hand at ten o’clock, the right at two. That’s right. You’re doing swell. You’re a natural. Next thing you know, you’ll be doing the Indy 500.”

We both laughed at that as I stopped at the light.

That day, Ramon put me on the freeway to the beach and back and then around his neighborhood in East L.A. and to Olvera Street where he bought me a burrito and a Coke.

And that’s how I learned to drive and how I met Ramon, a Mexican-American from East L.A., who lived on a nice street in Boyle Heights.

There would be more after that. There would be crazy little Tio, who cut my lawn and told me stories of driving down to Guatemala with a van full of new Levis to sell and coming back with bullet holes in his van. He wasn’t lying. I put my finger in the holes. Crazy little Tio.

Tonight when I make beans and rice for supper, I will think that somewhere down on the border behind cold, iron fences there are a couple of teenage Tios and Ramons, who just want to come to America and get a job and live in a nice house on Boyle Heights in East L.A. Cut grass? Teach gringos to drive? ¿Por qué no?

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 

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