I don’t drive much any more. I clearly remember getting my driver’s license at sixteen and wanting to drive everywhere all the time. We had moved from Brooklyn to Hauppauge, Long Island. At first I was mortified to admit to my city friends that we were moving to Long Island. Hauppauge, no less. I mean, really! A girl who was used to riding the subway into Manhattan for ballet lessons, was moving to a hick town called “Hop-Hog”.
On a summer’s day we moved into the tract home on Saturn Blvd, with me pouting the whole time. It was FIFTY miles from the city, and as far as I could tell, nothing to do. There was an empty field across the street, a hamburger stand called “Hubie Burgers”, a movie theater named “The Hauppauge Theater” (how original), and a Woolworth’s. Gawd! At least it had a Carvel; I could just eat ice cream all the time and turn into a fat farm girl.
I met Walter that fall when I became a student at Hauppauge High School. Walter was a clean-cut super-jock, captain of the football team, and he had a Fifty-five Chevy with four-on-the-floor. Coming from New York, where nobody drove, I didn’t know what that meant, didn’t think I cared, being a perfectly happy subway rider where I got a lot of reading and napping done. And then I got behind the wheel!
After a few bucking and stalling sessions, Walter taught me how to drive a stick shift. I loved driving. I drove to the store anytime my mom even hinted that she needed something. I picked up my younger siblings from school, baseball practice, Brownie meetings, choir practice, even beer runs for my dad by the time I was seventeen. In those days the drinking age in New York was eighteen, and if they asked, you just said: “I’m eighteen.” And that was that.
After decades of driving, and driving, and driving, one day I just stopped. At that time, I was driving a Jaguar V8 gas guzzler. I moved to South Beach, Miami, a pedestrian district, bought a pair of inline skates and parked the car in the valet parking only to be driven to show property to prospective buyers, while wearing my real estate hat.
When Don and I moved to Atenas, we didn’t own a car. We live in Roca Verde, a community within walking distance to town. I walked to town, a twenty minute walk, with my empty backpack, shopped for groceries keeping the uphill walk home in mind. Hiking home took a bit longer depending on if I purchased heavy items such as whole papayas, pineapples, or watermelon, all deliciously irresistible here in Atenas. In addition to not over-buying, I was getting quite slender and fit.
When we found the perfect car on Craigslist, life changed. Don drove the car to work in San Jose when he was assigned to local projects. When he was scheduled abroad he left the car with me. I seldom drove and rarely was in charge of fueling or checking tires. In fact, I never looked at either, usually in a hurry to get to my important destination: dance class, the Friday Farmer’s Market, Kay’s for breakfast, or cocktails at Gail’s house, my New York artist friend.
Gail and I had just finished dance class at Su Espacio, an Atenas community center, when I suddenly realized I had been driving the little car around town for days and never once looked at the gas gauge. I started up the little Hyundai, and the needle didn’t move. I revved up the engine and it still didn’t budge. Fortunately the class is directly across the street from the gas station. I inched the little red car to the gas pump, reached for my purse and realized I had left it home!
Like most people who drive in Costa Rica, we keep some coins in the ashtray for toll money for the new highway, route 27. There wasn’t much, but I grabbed the coins, jumped out of the car, smiled apologetically at the nice young man who was ready to pump the gas. “!Hola!, I forgot my wallet. Can I have 850 colones ($1.70) worth of gas? I’ll come back later and fill up. I left my wallet at home!”
The young man, who I had never seen before, said: “You live in Atenas, don’t you? I’ll just fill it up now. You can pay me later. No problema.” He made a small shrugging gesture, grabbed the pump, and flashed me a big smile.
I stood there, speechless for a moment, put the silly coins in my pocket, and asked his name. “Michael.”
“Oh? Michael, no Miguel?”
In a gentle manner he said, “Yes, Miguel. I trying to practice English.”
Melt my heart, Miguel! The pump clicked off to ‘full’ and the total was 19, 654 colones. He told me he would try to get a little more in so the total was an even 20,000. He did it, I started jumping up and down (some cheerleader traits never die), and told him I would be right back with the twenty.
I doubt that would have happened in New York, California, or Miami – but then again, maybe it would. All I know is it happened in Atenas and I’m happy I live here!