Monday, October 18, 2010

A Driving Lesson

The car hit us from behind just as we were about to turn.  It was only a tap but I wanted to make sure that there had been no damage.

I was just putting my clipboard aside when I noticed the driver of the other car standing next to my window glaring at me.

I gave him a big, friendly smile, stepped out on the passenger side and walked with him to the back of the car. He was tall and thin, in his mid-twenties and wore an expensive leather jacket.

We glanced at the bumpers and everything looked okay.

     "You must have rolled back," he said.

A ridiculous statement if I ever head one. The street was level. Besides, as I told him,

    "We were already moving forward."

He started hollering at me. I was so stunned that I can't remember what he said. I only knew that there was a point I wanted to make so I ignored his outburst and began speaking.

     "You shouldn't -" I started to say but he interrupted me before I could finish.

     "Get outta my face!" He screamed, moving threateningly toward me.

     "There's no need to be rude. I was just trying to say - "

     "Get outta my face!" He screamed again.

Who was he to tell me what to do?

    "I'll get in your face if I feel like it," I replied taking a step forward.

     "Back off!" He, as usual, screamed, "Or I'll kick your ugly face in."

     "That's not a nice way to talk," I said with a smile. "All I've been trying to say is -"

     "My God!" He screamed in exasperation, "There isn't even any damage!"

     "True," I agreed, "But irrelevant to my point. You shouldn't -"

      "I'm gonna ruin your whole day!" He threatened.

I ignored him and tried once again to speak.

    "You shouldn't -"

     "I'm gonna fuck you up for life!"

     "You shouldn't - "

     "Suit yourself," he cried as he shoved me in the chest.

Now you'd think a guy with his attitude would've learned how to fight or at least have taken a few boxing lessons or one of those self-defense courses. If he had, it didn't show. He had big hands but a weak grip. I easily took his fists off me and pushed him away.

     "Okay - you asked for it," she snapped.

Then he let out a Kung Fu yelp and leaped toward me swinging a wide, wild left hook. It was one of the most ridiculous and pathetic moves I've ever seen. I almost broke out laughing. I was so amused that I took mercy on the fool, held back my punch and made my move. I bull-rushed him, threw him down on the pavement, pinned his arms with my knees and sat on his chest.

     "I'm sorry, " he said, "I'm really sorry."

     "You shouldn't -"

     "I didn't mean it," he cried out.

     "You shouldn't -"

     "I won't do it again! I won't _"

I was just about to slap him when he sensed my intend and shut up.

     "You shouldn't," I calmly and quietly told him, "tailgate."

Mary Beth was still sitting in the driver's seat when I got back to the car. In the excitement of the argument, I'd forgotten about her. As I climbed into the passenger seat, I tried not to notice the womanly body thrusting out of her school uniform. 

She clutched the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles turned white. She stared at me with wide, dilating, blue eyes.

     "We can only hope he'll learn from this experience," I said. "Now let's finish that right turn - but cut it a little sharper this time. You shouldn't ... you wouldn't want to end up on the wrong side of the street.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Three Rights Make A Left

Shirley MacArthur spent the afternoon of her 84th birthday getting lessons from me on how to make lane changes on two of the busiest streets in San Francisco (Fell and Oak.) Shirley hadn't learned how to drive until she was 35 and never liked changing lanes. If she needed to go left, she drove one block past the desired street and then made three right turns.

The strategy worked fine for almost 50 years - until she had to take a driving test. Shirley needed a teacher and chose me when she found out I was a cab driver like her late husband. I'd taken up teaching because I'd burned out on full time cab driving and needed a mental break. I would drive taxi three days and teach two or three.

It made me a more careful driver. I mean, I couldn't very well tell fifteen year-olds to slow down than race around like a lunatic myself. I became the world's safest cab driver and the most dangerous driving teacher. My taxi colleagues had a different view and took to calling me, "the old lady."

Ironically, they also thought I was crazy to take on such a dangerous job. Yeah - not a safe occupation like driving around with a couple hundred in cash in a city filled with junkies. And, I can't remember a single driving student threatening to re-arrange my face.

The truth is that I found teaching a little dull - a real danger because you never knew when a student might suddenly whip a left in front of a charging semi.

I specialized in drivers that were either very good or very bad because they both demanded all my attention: the good ones because I could teach them advanced skills and the bad ones because they kept me alert. Part of this approach included teaching seniors who needed to be re-tested.

Age by itself didn't seem to be very important in determining their chances of improving. The main quality required was the ability to learn new and different ways to do things. Some people could still adapt at 90, others were hopelessly set in their ways at 60.

The classic example was changing lanes. This is where most senior drivers fail. The generation before mine had not been taught to look over their shoulders. Instead they only used the mirrors. But, of course, you can't see everything unless you take an over-the-shoulder glance. In California, if a driver doesn't do it, he or she flunks the test.

I had one student who had failed three times because he neglected to take that glance. He was only in his forties but I've never taught anyone so impossible. I had him make at least 50 lane changes and had to tell to look every single time. At the end of the lesson, he turned to me and asked, "Can you look over your shoulder too much?"

This sort of hardened mentality wasn't a problem with Shirley. She was sharp and she was game. The only difficulties were getting over her fear and teaching her to make those lane change in heavy traffic - the toughest technique in driving. We spent three rush hours going up and down, whipping from one lane to another, on those insane, congested streets. The next day she easily passed the test.

"You're a great teacher," she told me as I drove her home, "you should stick to teaching ... I always tell my cab drivers to get out of the business - it's just too dangerous out there."

"Yeah, " I said laconically, "I know."

"No, you don't," she said. Then she told me about her husband.

They were in love and were very happy together. They opened a small cafe that gradually became successful. Her husband drove the cab a couple of nights a week to help with the expenses. When the cafe started to bring in enough money he decided to finally quit driving.

"On his last night," Shirley told me, "on his last ride, he picked up a crazy ex-marine dressed like a WWI Russian officer and he killed my Bobby with a sword ... so, no, you don't know how dangerous it is."