My first word was “Isuzu.” Nobody in my family was surprised. Uncle Raymond drove a cab, and he also ran an auto-repair shop beneath Aunt Pauline’s grocery store on Georgia Avenue in Petworth. I grew up around orphaned car seats and rims, auto posters and dirty jokes. I could recognize a make and model by age seven.
In my family, if you bought a vehicle, the first place you showed it off was in the alley behind Raymond’s shop—Aunty Rona’s candy-red Nissan 300ZX, Aunty Pauline’s stately BMW 7 Series (the first time I ever saw a car phone). But it was my uncle’s cab I loved the most.
In 30 years of transporting drunk kids and diplomats alike, he had absorbed everything, from how to tell if a bicyclist was a European tourist (“They know how to stop at stop signs”) to where to park for free if you were hungry (the broken meter outside the old Penn Grill at 20th and Pennsylvania). He’d share his knowledge with me as he confidently navigated traffic circles while I sat in back. When the ride ended, he’d place a $20 bill in my hand along with a reminder, always in third person: “Your Uncle Raymond is very proud of you.”
When I got my license, I decided I’d give rides to friends whenever I could. Then I failed the test. The first time, I braked too hard after parallel-parking. The second time, I took too long to park. The third time, I was too far from the curb.
I went off to the University of Maryland convinced I’d never learn to drive, and I discovered I could make that work: walking to the grocery store, catching buses all over town, riding Metro to the end of each line, making out in a car to the Dismemberment Plan—anxious to get swallowed up in the life of someone cooler and more interesting than I was.
At the end of freshman year, I returned home to Silver Spring for the summer and went through a breakup. As I watched my now-ex’s car disappear from my parents’ cul-de-sac, all I could think of was getting my license. But I couldn’t even parallel-park in a video game.
“I know who can teach you,” my mother said. A few days later, Uncle Raymond laid out some cones in Carter Barron Amphitheatre’s parking lot and took up position beside the car. I placed my hands at the bottom of the steering wheel, and he jumped. “What are you doing?!”
“This is how they taught me,” I said, “so the airbag doesn’t hit me.”
“That’s if you want to drive like a wimp. Put your hands at 10 and 2. It’ll give you more control.”
I placed the car in reverse and gingerly released the brake as he started waving wildly: “Cut it! Cut it!”
“What does that mean?” I asked, breathing heavily.
“Turn the wheel—you can’t stop like this in traffic!”
Hands at 10 and 2, I obliged, watching the car swing out. He pantomimed turning his hands the other way: “Cut it! Cut it! You can do this!” I eased back between the cones. “Okay—stop!” He smacked the trunk, and I looked: Everything lined up. We did it again and again till I got it right, plus a few more times, my uncle beaming, my heart slowing with each try.
A few months ago, Uncle Raymond dropped off a fare, then collapsed in the driver’s seat of his cab. He passed away soon after. He was 72.
Thirteen years ago, after finally getting my license, I brought my Honda Civic to the alley. Raymond asked if I had any gas, and when I told him I was low, he handed me $20. “I’ll get you some,” he said. “Come give your uncle a ride.”
This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Washingtonian.