Driving Lessons With a Whiff of Mortality

Google Maps won’t tell you where Ray Charles is spending eternity, but my 16-year-old son, Sebastian, can take you there.

I admit this is an inside job on my part. Sebastian is a piano player who appreciates the crooners of yore. He’s also learning to drive. I thought it might scare him to attention to take his inaugural spins around a cemetery full of famous musicians — Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald are buried there, too — just inland from the sprawling tundra of Los Angeles International Airport.

A chief advantage of teaching your kid to drive in a graveyard is that you probably won’t kill anybody. But there are other benefits both for the young motorist and the parent pumping imaginary brakes in the passenger seat. Those forgiving paved loops insulate you from certain menaces on the alive-and-kicking side of the wrought iron: The speed demons, the tailgaters, the mysterious signaler who never turns. There are no joggers or bicyclists, no kids chasing balls into the street, no Amazon Prime delivery vans stopping without warning. Now that driving is only one of a dozen technologies competing for Sebastian’s attention, anything I can do to offset distractions helps.

Growing up in Scranton in the 1980s, I figured out how to drive before I could reach the gas pedal. “Good driving” was a valued asset in a person’s stock of skills, like carving a turkey or finding your way out of the woods. Your status as an upstanding adult depended on it. An uncle of mine once dozed off at the wheel and briefly drifted from the road. Though nobody got hurt, he might as well have robbed a liquor store, the way my family cursed him. To avoid damnation of that sort, I cracked the code on the yield and the U-turn from the back seat. The day my father first laid out Pepsi bottles and had me do figure eights in an empty synagogue parking lot, I was already set to pilot his Buick LeSabre straight across America.

Today half as many 16-year-olds have licenses as they did in 1983, when I got mine. There’s Uber and FaceTime now. But knowing how to operate that magical escape machine called a car widens the view. Sebastian and I play a game of headstone spotting at Inglewood Park Cemetery, partly as an exercise in acceleration and braking but also because L.A. has so many fascinating dead people if you know where to look. There’s Cesare Cardini, credited with inventing the Caesar salad. There’s Kim Kardashian’s dad. One afternoon, we moved a broken taillight that somehow got through the chain link fence near where Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton rests. She belted the original version of “Hound Dog” but got only $500 for it, and lies here in a pauper’s grave shared with two other souls buried that day.

You learn to drive in cemeteries so you can avoid cemeteries. That’s the paradox. The literal whiff of mortality reminds you — and by you, I mean Sebastian — how much is at stake at the helm of 3,000 pounds of gleaming Prius. I appreciate that there are no stop signs at the crossroads of Yew and Cypress, and that geese and squirrels waddle into your lane like they own the place, and that granite obelisks cause terrible blind spots. I like how a metallic blue hearse came barreling across our path from the Garden of Little Lambs, and the look in my son’s eyes as he braked to watch it proceed.

After four or five visits and a few dozen bone orchard circuits, I moved on to the interior game. Driving among the dearly departed lays the groundwork for those deeper lessons, too. On the 405 freeway, if someone cuts you off, the kneejerk reaction is to rage, high beams flashing, fingers extended. That’s always a mistake, of course. You can’t pretend to know what any other driver is dealing with. Cemeteries prepare you for this existential reality. Odds are excellent that the swerving road hog ahead of you is experiencing some sort of grief. It makes you a kinder and more defensive driver to picture everyone around you in serious pain.

On our final session before braving the byways of the living, I directed Sebastian to parallel park outside the Mausoleum of the Golden West so we could pay our respects to the Genius of Soul. It was a quiet Tuesday, the sun high in the perennial blue sky, the 80-degree breeze belying the anxiety I felt about removing the secret training wheels. It took a good 15 minutes to locate Crypt A 32 in the Eternal Love Corridor where Ray Charles is interred.

As we passed name after name in brass on marble, Sebastian told me about a phrase he’d heard from some YouTubers he follows called Yes Theory. They’re a group of optimistic young universe denters whose videos promote open-mindedness and positivity. Before the pandemic, they plunged bare-chested into frozen lakes, bungeed out of helicopters, and showed up in distant lands without a penny or a reservation. The line Sebastian excitedly recalled was “Live the dash.” Between the date you’re born and the date you die, you’d better make your time worthwhile.

Rather than lift me up, the line shook me. It struck me that what Sebastian and I had been doing was its own sort of joy ride with impermanence. Teaching your child to drive is teaching him how to get away from you, how to go down lonely highways you’ll never see and manage blind curves and oncoming dangers you can’t possibly predict. My son’s license won’t just give him the right to order drive-through at midnight at In-N-Out Burger or cruise the Pacific Coast Highway without a destination in mind. It’s a license to fill the cosmic gap any way he pleases, and all my neurotic passenger-seat braking won’t do a thing. The dash is real and it’s his to ride.

I drove us back home, more conscious than usual of my speed and of modeling a safe distance between us and the vehicle ahead. Sebastian played D.J. and put Ray Charles on Spotify. “Hit the road, Jack,” we sang, pretending we weren’t singing together, because who sings with their dad at 16?

David Hochman is a writer in Los Angeles.

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