The Daily

First Person

A New Year’s Drive

January 11, 2014 | by


Photo: Morven, via Wikimedia Commons

My father bought me a Swiss watch when I was seven. The strap was too big and needed adjusting, but when I could finally put it on, I felt a surge of electricity pulse through me, as if I’d just been shackled to time’s wrist. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the ticking of the second hand to sync up with the beat of my heart.

I stopped wearing it and kept it in my pocket, only later finding the proper use for it: timing the forty-fives I bought and listened to in my room, checking the accuracy of the time on the label to the time on my watch. The Beatles’ singles, I found, all listed the correct times. The Rolling Stones’ singles, not so much. They’d often claim their songs were fifteen or twenty seconds shorter than they really were, hoping to get more airplay from DJs, who would often opt for a song they could run right into the news break. For me, it was the first hint that time was negotiable, that with the right connections no one had to pay full price for an hour. That being the case, what was the point of a watch? I haven’t worn one since.

* * *

Not long after, I started waking up in the night with bad, bad dreams about cars, nightmares of being behind a wheel somewhere on a highway, lost and panicked, cars whizzing by, the sun going down, nothing whatsoever on the radio. I was a New York City kid. Cars were nothing but trouble. You had to know where you were going. Then you had to go there. And then you had to park. This was far too linear for my tastes.

The summer I was seventeen, my folks sent me to California to visit my brother on his ranch and to get my license. He was an angry and solitary man, caught in a deep internal debate with himself that he kept losing. He took me off in his Ford to an abandoned stretch of road and had me get behind the wheel.

“Pay attention,” he said. And then he said it again.

“Watch the road,” he barked. There was nothing to watch. “Watch the road.”

The clock on the dashboard kept blinking the wrong time. I pointed this out, and he made me pull over and get out. I thought he might leave me there, but he had me switch over to the passenger side, and we drove back to his house in silence.

The next day, he called a friend who worked at the sheriff’s office, and I took my driver’s test on a tractor. There wasn’t much driving involved, and I passed. Within the hour, he’d put me on a bus to San Francisco. He even paid for the ticket.

Later, maybe a year or two later, when I was in Providence, a pretty girl named Marianne stopped by my place on Hope Street right after New Year’s. She was driving to Fox Point, over on the east side of town. Did I want to go with her? She had soft dark hair and lost eyes, and she looked like a flower with a hangover. Of course I wanted to go.

We drove to Gano Street, and she bought tea with nettles, a loaf of Portuguese sweet bread, a box of blank cassettes, and some hair products. The café was closed, the nail salon was busy, and the music store had nothing but old fado albums in the window. We walked back to her car, and she handed me the keys. “I feel dizzy,” she said. “Do you mind driving back?” This didn’t seem like the right time to mention my lack of automotive skills. I got in. My priority was looking cool. I rolled my window down and rested my elbow on the window frame. My head was tilted just so, something by The Kinks was on the radio, and the sun was shining. I got on the highway. I wasn’t doing too badly.

I got off the highway onto Wickenden Street. No one had ever told me that when you get off a highway you slow down, but it didn’t feel like I was going that fast until I hit the police car. All things considered, they were pretty nice about it.

I haven’t driven since. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Marianne since. I hope she’s feeling better.

Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.




  1. sheri dreyfuss | January 11, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    I love articles and stories written by brian cullman. His style is engaging and clear not to mention informative. Perhaps the single greatest reason that I read his pieces is that I feel intimately involved in the experiences -he tells things in such a genuine and detailed way that I can immediately relate to what he has experienced.
    Please print more from Brian….

  2. Drew Kristofik | January 11, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Brian’s writing is so sublime, I actually found myself thinking I’d like this piece to be what I’m reading on my deathbed (hopefully many years from now!). If his words were my last meal, I’d be happy! I hope there’s a book coming.

  3. Richard Horowitz | January 11, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Years ago Brian told me that he was going to have his tongue surgically removed from his cheek. Good thing he never did.
    Amusing, beguiling and drop dead profound he segues from innuendo to blasphemy with zero perspiration. His thin skin has real human pores ready and waiting to dissipate the heat at the sign of his very first blush. But this petulant Pope of the West Village never blushes or is he always blushing?

  4. Marc Farre | January 11, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    Once again, Cullman, in a few words, manages to conjure and hold what I can only describe as some kind of magical tension between the sublime and the hilarious. I don’t know how he does it, but I hope he keeps doing it. More from this writer please. He is special.

  5. Rob Harrison | January 12, 2014 at 1:43 am

    I *loved* reading this. Thank you, Brian.

  6. Chuck Morton | January 12, 2014 at 4:06 am

    Two million professional miles in the past 40 years, and I can say with great authority based on evidence presented we are all better off with this guy in the back seat. Furthermore, having spent too many miles behind the wheel of road float boats like the one pictured, thank goodness most of those have passed into the beyond. They don’t make them like they used to for some very valid reasons.

  7. susan spehar | January 12, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Brian Cullman’s stories are little presents that satisfy both my head and my heart. His gift lies not just in his way with words but in the generous spirit in which they are written.
    Agile, illuminating, intimate, they open doors to worlds I can walk through or just peek into.
    Winding my watch will never be quite the same again…

  8. jennifer k | January 12, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Brian Cullman, master craftsman in writing and imagery. beautiful story and message. Please keep these coming from Brian, his writing is magical.

  9. Sally Eckhoff | January 14, 2014 at 8:19 am

    Whenever I have trouble with something I’m writing, I ask Brian. It’s very hard to do things Brian’s way. You’d have to think like Brian does, which even Brian has trouble with sometimes. He knows the answers to baffling philosophical problems. Yes, he does. And he’s the only person in the world who could describe a girl as looking like a flower with a hangover. No surprise Brian knew a girl like this.
    I’m only sorry that it wasn’t me. And I’ll keep trying to write like Brian, and if I could, by God I’d let him drive.

  10. Rebecca Martin | January 14, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Brian Cullman is one of my favorite writers and musicians – and his collaboration with ‘The Paris Review” a perfect fit for someone of his caliber. Keep those pieces coming! I love reading and sharing them.

  11. Carla Nolin | February 10, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Hmmmm. so nice (Those are cute little streets you’re talking about ). What a pleasure to come upon this. A serendipitous read-ride

  12. ray santos | June 23, 2015 at 9:50 am

    was his brother ever nice to him?

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