Driving lessons


My father's camioneta

When I recall that I learned to drive from my father, I consider myself very lucky to still be alive. I took driver’s ed at Divine Heart Seminary, but I only got to drive the minimum required hours. My father loved teaching everyone how to drive. The only one who ever refused to take lessons from him was my mother. She didn’t like him telling her what to do. Especially, since she knew his every bad–and dangerous–bad driving habits. My father had some very dangerous driving habits that he tried to teach everyone he taught. Including me! Since I was only sixteen, I had to follow his instructions carefully or risk never driving again. I had a permit and I wanted to drive!  

I was a very poor driver in driver’s ed. The first car I drove was a 1971 Pontiac Firebird with a manual transmission. We were all excited about driving a sports car! I stalled the engine every time I drove. The instructor told me I would be fine once we started driving the Chevy Caprice with an automatic transmission. Everyone was happy about the automatic transmission because the engine stalling stopped. Until I got behind the wheel. Somehow, I still managed to stall the engine! But that was the least of my worries. I didn’t know how to yield at yield signs, and from years of watching my father drive, I didn’t come to a complete stop at stop signs. I thought stopping was optional. My father never came to a complete stop at a stop sign. Now that I think of it, he never completely stopped at red lights either! Whenever the light turned red, he would slowly stop a couple car lengths from the intersection and slowly creep forward until the light turned green.  

I was surprised that my father wanted me to drive his brand new lime green 1971 Ford Maverick. He was so proud that he was teaching his oldest son how to drive!  I was even more surprised at some of the driving maneuvers de demanded of me! For example, he would tell me to take short cuts through alleys. When I came out of the other end, he wanted me to lay on the horn in case any car or pedestrian was at the mouth of the alley. He taught me about lane position when making right turns. If you make a right turn, my father told me, you have to get in the right lane. Then, when you get close to the intersection, you swing out wide to the left before you turn! I almost crashed the very first time I tried my father’s technique. My father always made his right turns like this. I’m surprised he didn’t have more accidents.  

He also told me to use a turn signal when changing lanes. But sometimes, it was better not to let the other drivers know your intentions. I’m not sure why. I never really understood his explanation. If you got to and intersection without any traffic controls and the other driver signalled you to proceed before him, my father told me to never go. He just wanted to crash into you. To this day, I always give the other driver the right of way.  

My father always had trouble staying in his lane. On the expressway, in the right lane, he would exit on the right if he didn’t focus on staying in his lane. Before I started driving, I thought staying in your lane was probably the most difficult driving feat possible. My father would make everyone be quiet whenever we approached exit ramps. In the picture of my father’s station wagon, you can see the result of his not staying in his lane. he was driving northbound on Damen Avenue at 47th Street. That was the site of the infamous Damen overpass in Back of the Yards. The left two lanes took you over the overpass. However, the right lane allowed drivers to veer right and avoid going on the overpass. Well, my father was in the right lane when the exit lane pulled him to the right. Unfortunately, he crashed into the concrete barrier dividing the lanes despite the flashing yellow warning light and warning sign. Luckily, he was alone while driving.  

He parked for about ten minutes to calm down from the trauma before he came home. I was the first one to see him and his fender damage. I was sorry I asked him what had happened. It took him about five minutes to explain this two-second traffic crash. Then, he told me to get in the car and he took me back to the scene of the accident. He did a reenactment of the accident. I was riding shotgun, not wearing a seatbelt because back then no one wore seatbelts because most cars didn’t have seatbelts. As he was showing me his path before the accident, he almost crashed into the concrete barrier again! That really shook him up and he had to pull over for a few minutes to calm down before we could drive home.I still have some of the driving habits that my father instilled in me. And that’s why I say that I’m lucky to be alive!  

Taco Loco


You can’t go to Taco Loco anymore. But I often do. If only in my mind. I remember it well. On the corner of the public parking lot at the northeast corner of Wabash and Balbo, in the shadow of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Sacrificed to expand the parking lot and Chicago’s dwindling parking availability with four more parking spaces. I should post a picture to show you where it used to be. In the 1960s, we often drove past it. We, as Mexicans, always wondered who would name a Mexican restaurant Taco Loco. We never ate there because Mexicans didn’t eat at Mexican restaurants in the 1960s. They only worked there. In fact, I never even heard of any Mexicans ever eating in a restaurant. If we ate outside of the house it was at someone else’s home or we brought our own tortillas, bolillos, carnitas, peppers, and salsa. When my parents divorced, my father would pick us up for visitation in his flourescent-avocado-green 1971 Ford Maverick. Sometimes we would drive southbound on Wabash past Taco Loco. I was always curious about Taco Loco, a small, white brick building that didn’t look very well-maintained. In fact, it always looked like it was about to fall over until they knocked it down.

As an adult, when I could finally do everything that was prohibited by my parents, I finally went to Taco Loco. I loved their food. Let’s just say that forbidden fruit tastes the best! No one who worked there was a native English speaker, if you know what I mean. Luckily, I spoke Spanish. I ate there whenever I was downtown. The food was really cheap, too, especially if considered that this was a downtown restaurant. In 1992, during the World Cup semifinals, I was eating, sitting near the window. I saw some drunken soccer fans across the street, waving German flags and singing German songs. Suddenly, they ran out of songs to sing and they started shouting, “Baseball sucks!” They were scaring me. Luckily, they didn’t see me and their bus came right away.

When I taught Spanish at Columbia College Chicago, I often ate there after class. Then one day, the Spanish coördinator told me that I had to take my Spanish classes on a field trip. I wasn’t sure where to take them. When I tried to arrange a trip, we couldn’t agree on a time because every student was a full-time student. And many of them also worked. Talk about complications. So I’m sitting in Taco Loco eating enchiladas when it occurred to me that I could take them to Taco Loco! We were only a block away from our classroom and we could meet in Taco Loco instead of going to class. This actually worked out well for everyone. Since Taco Loco was open 24 hours, we met there for our 9:00 a.m. class. Everyone ordered their food in Spanish from the non-English-speaking waitress and they spoke Spanish as much as possible. Even the Spanish coördinator liked our destination for the field trip. No one else had ever thought of going to Taco Loco. I guess I’m just a trailblazer. I can’t help it. 🙂

Where did Taco Loco go?