Saturday, July 19, 2003

Gripping the Wheel


Saturday July 19, 2003

Gripping the Wheel
* Irwin Hearst is 95, and that's exactly why he has surrendered his keys. After driving eight decades, the word for him is 'adjust.'

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

It was 1922. In Montreal, Canada. Some irresponsible kids lent their neighbor, 14-year-old Irwin Hearst, the keys to their Packard automobile.

Hearst remembers it well: the ascent -- "there were step-on seats on the side of the car" -- and, of course, takeoff. "Exhilarating. I was king of the mountain."

Eight decades later, he has surrendered his keys for good. He sits shirtless in his two-room apartment, gray slacks tethered snugly to his midriff, active eyes behind large-rimmed black glasses. Hearst lives in Westwood Horizons, a group housing facility that advertises "Adventures in Senior Living."

"It's lonely being by yourself," he says. "So I moved here two years ago, when my wife passed away. They have a shuttle to the hospital, which is convenient."

Hearst still could drive if he wanted to. Ninety-five years old, he has a regular California driver's license and owns a car. He has had "no major accidents" and considers himself a "good driver."

Still, Hearst believes that "no elderly person should drive," and he is no exception. "We haven't got the reflexes. Why kid yourself?"

When he put his car up for sale, "everybody told me, 'You'll be sorry,' " Hearst says. "But I meditate and decide what's good for me. And what is good for other people. I'm ready," he says, and gestures, palms up. "Here's my car."

And then he smiles. "I've got an electronic walker now! It can turn all the way around! It was a bargain -- I got it from a lady who only used it for two weeks before she died. I'll just go on trips from here!"

The room is silent for a moment. "You feel as if your hands will be tied," he admits. "As if you'll be left alone. As if the whole world is passing you by."

"I got my first car for $200," Hearst remembers. "I was living in New York City. It was a convertible, but I couldn't put the top up." Instead, Hearst fashioned a roof of cardboard, which he used on rainy days. "I really must have been quite a sight."

Hearst spent his working life driving. He was a traveling salesman, so his car was a second home. "My car was one of my tools," he says. He would often "travel 70 miles away from my base" -- just him, his goods and his wheels.

It is fine to start slowing down, Hearst says. After living for almost a century, "the word is 'adjust,' " he explains. "I don't ever forget it." He will see friends less frequently, but one of his daughters lives close by. And Westwood Horizons sponsors activities and shows movies.

"The L.A. freeways are abominable," Hearst says, so in a way, good riddance. "And young people don't know when to stop or slow down." And "the average person is negative toward elderly drivers." As Hearst got older and drove more slowly, "people always honked," he says.

Or worse. One day, when Hearst was 85, he was driving onto a freeway onramp from Santa Monica Boulevard. Suddenly, the driver behind him started honking. "He wanted to get in front of me," Hearst says.

Apparently, Hearst didn't move quickly enough. "I heard a loud crash, and when I turned around my rear window had shattered. He had shot a gun at me," Hearst says. "That scared the hell out of me."

Hearst drove directly to the police station, but the cop on duty was no help.

"Did you make any dirty signs at him?" he asked, and extended his middle finger in demonstration. "Is an 85-year-old man going to make those signs?" Hearst still wonders.

His daughter nagged him to stop driving for some time, and although the old man is fiercely independent, her persistence had something to do with his decision.

"I used to just pooh-pooh her," he says, "tell her that I'll take care of myself." But, like the word "adjust," Hearst has taken certain life lessons to heart: "If you become stubborn, then woe is you," he says, without explanation.

Westwood Horizons holds a special "candlelight dinner" once a month. Tonight's will begin soon, and Hearst would like to attend. He rises and moves slowly across the carpeted floor to his mirrored closet. He chooses a bright yellow sweater. Dressing is a lengthy process: One hand pulls the garment down a few inches on one side, then the other hand echoes, and the steps repeat.

Hearst dons a suit jacket, and looks quite the dashing dinner date. But he walks slowly down the hallway, back stiff, bent forward.

A woman in uniform approaches, looking tired. "Irwin, your daughter wants to know what medicines you need ordered," she says.

Hearst turns, fire in his eyes. He sheds years. "I will order it!" he says, raising his voice in anger and embarrassment. "I've always done everything for myself! She better not come near me. She'll have to get a new father!"

The woman nods and speaks into a cell phone. Hearst arrives at the elevator. He drops heavily into a chair. And, gazing toward the floor, waits resignedly for transportation to whisk him to the shindig downstairs.

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