Burns: Look at them. Smug and secure in their finery. Mocking us.
Homer: Uh, they’re just snowmen, Mr. Burns.
Burns: Ah, snowmen have peepers. Peepers to watch. To watch for a
moment of weakness and then BAFF comes the knock in the head and
Homer: [worriedly] What do we do??
Burns: Oh…wouldn’t you like to know.
– “Mountain of Madness”
I had returned from a trip to New Jersey at two in the morning. I woke up four hours later in excruciating pain and decided to pop in Nicholas Cage’s ‘Weatherman,’ to take my mind of what debilitating cancer I was probably dying from. Of course, that movie caused a psychic pain all on its own and I turned it off around seven.
All this is to say, by the time I showed up for my 9:45 AM Driving Course — an indignity I was forced to suffer because of an injustice at the DMV — I was tired, cranky, in agony, miserable, cold and bitter. And then, when the school was still closed at 9:51, you could add, pissed the hell off.
An older African-American man strolled toward the mass of people huddled in front of the gated building swinging a ring of keys.
He unlocked the padlock and raised the metal gate.
He opened the glass doors and started the registration process.
I handed over my license and $50 so that I would get my credit with the state for this ridiculous waste of time and have my now-sullied driving record restored to its pre poker playing state. (It’s my brightline marker for everything now PP and AP.)
I was the first one in the classroom and I snagged the chair closest to the door.
One of the old time TVs that they’d wheel into your classroom in elementary school, when they were desperate for pedagogical material, was running. This particular film was called “The X Factors.” I was slumped over the desk, with my head down and one eye closed, but from what I could gather: exhaustion, plus a wife with her head on your shoulder as you drove, a heavy car and a snowy night are all “factors” for doom.
The day before Mary had promised that classes like these are chock full of videos about deadly highway accidents. Shhaaa, I wish. When Mr. heavy car wife arm crashes, he just sorta skids off the highway into a mile marker pole.
This theme was repeated as Mr. snowy road reading map crashes through some danger cones and teeters his vehicle into a ditch or when Mrs. My kids are running wild in the car swerves to avoid a kid on a bike.
No deaths. None. You know where there are deaths? Season 1 of Rome. Last Disc.
(“The boy is blameless…ahhhhhh.”)
Uh, sorry…sometimes we are forced to escape our dreaded realities of sitting in a cold cavernous classrooms with memories of Titus Pullo cutting some dude’s arm off.
By the time all the students registered and filled the seats around the table, I counted ten others.
The African-American man who opened up the school, was also our teacher.
He started quite predictably with warnings about cars and 250,000 deaths a year in the “deadliest war no one talks about.”
I was dozing.
And then, he said ‘ok, now that I’ve gotten that crap out of way, let’s get started.”
He introduced himself as Wilson, although he bore a striking resemblance to Lou Gossett Jr and I always refer to him as Lou.
He then said “Look, my father always said there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Well, he always said that, but he didn’t believe it. I’d ask him if I could borrow the car and he’s look at me and say ‘boy, what kind of stupid question is that?’ But today, in this class, I promise you. There is no such thing as a stupid question. There are, however, straaange questions. Like “Mr. Wilson, Sir, how long is the six hour class?” which one of you inevitably asks…so, let me get it out of the way now. “Mr. Wilson, how long is the SIX hour class…SIX HOURS. When the last period is put at the end of the final sentence it will be Fivish.”
I was not only exhausted, but I hadn’t eaten breakfast. This was going to suck. Hardcore.
Wilson went around the room asking everyone what crimes they were guilty of. I was all prepared to give my lengthy “there was no sign and the cop was a lying sack of Laura Bush” speech when one after another my classmates all had similar tales of rogue policemen and obstructed traffic signage.
One guy was in for tailgating on the Jackie Robinson, Another for an illegal right turn and ignoring a traffic device, another for going 60 in a 30 mph zone. By the time it got to me, I sighed and said illegal turn.
Wilson then said that he always feels so badly for his students that he likes to offer them a chance to get their money back on the class.
To that end, he said everyone that was an “above average” driver wouldn’t have to pay.
He then told all the above average drivers to raise their hands.
Eight hands went up. The two holdouts, a woman who hadn’t gotten a car yet and was just looking for some pointers and a young kid (the device ignorer from above) who was texting friends on his sidekick.
Wilson asked me what made me an above average driver.
I was prepared to say something like “I follow all the rules of the road and I’ve only gotten three tickets in 13 years of having a license,” but decided against it…no way was this dude going to get me participating in his class.
I didn’t want to be here and I was going to be miserable and sullen for six hours, whether he liked it or not.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You don’t know? Ms. Summers? So you just want me to hand over $50 to you, no questions asked?”
I grudgingly smiled and shrugged my shoulders again.
The guy next to me answered “because I’m aggressive.” A dude on the other side of the room said “because I’ve avoided more accidents than I’ve gotten into.”
“Oh Jesus, Mr. Thomas and you think that makes you above average?” Wilson said shaking his head.
There were a series of other inane answers and finally Wilson said, ok ok…how about we take a test to see how good you are. Anyone who gets a 100…gets their fee back.
He popped in a videotape called “King of the Road.”
I was immediately taken aback.
The narrator of the film was a very young, hot and still walking Christopher Reeve.
He saunters deliberately toward the camera explaining something or another about awareness and reflexes and then climbs into a red convertible as he invites us along for a ride.
The first few questions are ridiculously easy like what do you do if a car swerves into your lane and is coming at you headon.
(I say easy because once you look and notice that “scream hysterically” is not one of the options, slow down and pull over onto the shoulder just makes the most sense.)
Then it got insanely hard: what happens when two cars get to a four-way stop sign at the same? This was followed by this Haitian dude debating with Wilson for a good five minutes that he swears car A got there first, which means Car A goes first.
“No…at the same time Mr. Lensomethingsomething…same time.”
“No…Car A was first. The first car goes first.”
Wilson was going to stab him in the eye.
Then there was a crazy watch this video for thirty seconds and then the question turned out to be “what was the last traffic sign that you saw”? The answer to which turned out to be some school crossing sign off to the side.
After getting the first four questions right, I then amassed an impressive string of wrong answers.
I was so not getting the fifty bucks.
Around the time for lunch, Wilson said “man, I feel badly that you guys didn’t all score hundreds on that test…how about this…you get this question right and I will pay for your lunches.”
By now I was hooked, I wanted that free lunch and to get a question right for the love of all that was holy: so when he wrote the following question on the board:
Every car has two taillights, but the back of the car has other lights, as well…tell me how many lights in total?
I really focussed.
Ok…two taillights…um…those lights that come on when you reverse….OH! And that red brake light in the back window of the car…I put down a confident FIVE.
Wow. Was I wrong. (I like comments…and to see how many people have read down this far, so leave your guesses in the comment section….NO GOOGLING! Cheating bastards.)
At lunch I decided on a combo breakfast/lunch. I got coffee and rolls at the Jamaican bakery over by the Gentrification Manor and Popeye’s chicken.
I was still eating the chicken when we resumed class.
“Ms. Summers. Do you eat chicken at the wheel of your car?”
“Well, for the next three hours, you are each at the wheel of a car…behave accordingly.”
He handed out seven scenarios to groups of two and we had to decide on a course of action (saying specifically what you would do with your hands and feet) and the class then had to rule on whether that was the right or wrong thing to do.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we will drive on average 624,000 miles in our lifetimes…it’s not a question of if these situations will arise…but when. You must know how to handle them.)
The first scenario was “You are traveling at 60 MPH on a busy highway and your left, front wheel blows out. What do you do.”
The group who drew that scenario said you take your foot off the gas, hit the brake and put the car in neutral as you signal and pull over.”
(As we would discover later, that dude was obsessed with putting the car in neutral….”out of gas? Put the car in neutral and….locked out? well, you put the car in neutral and…car is dirty? Put it in neutral and then….)
They were wrong, of course. (This was also a theme, whatever we thought the right answer was…nope…we were wrong.)
Wilson demonstrated that their plan of presses on the brakes would send the car flipping to the left and if it was an SUV, they would roll over head first, killing everyone inside.
The mock chair SUV came crashing over to my desk and I screamed.
“Ms. Summers? Are you all right?”
“NO! What’s a blow out???”
He then filled his cheeks with air and made an exploding sound with his mouth while extending his ten fingers to really drive the point home.
“WHY ARE THE TIRES EXPLODING?”
Something about heat and overinflation..I wasn’t listening. I was looking at the wrecked SUV and picturing the rivers of blood streaming onto the highway from the beheaded passengers inside.
I was in an SUV yesterday! That could have been my head!
The next scenario: You are traveling 30 MPH down a city street when you see smoke coming out of your hood. What do you do?
The guy who dre it said he would pull over and call 911.
Others said they would open to hood to check.
This was most definitely wrong.
Wilson asked: what does fire need to survive?
I knew this one!
“That’s right, Ms. Summers oxygen. So if you see smoke and you open the hood…you giving the fire the very thing it needs to blase up in your face and burn you to death…not to mention destroy your car in a matter of minutes.”
I screamed again.
“WHY IS THERE SMOKE COMING OUT OF MY HOOD?”
Evidently there is any number of reasons.
(Answer: Turn off the engine, remove the key, unlock the trunk and hood from inside the car(but don’t open the hood.) Get your fire extinguisher out of the trunk and then duck low and cover the whole front of the hood with the extinguisher foam.)
Another scenario: You are traveling 60 mph on a crowded highway. The brakelights of the car i nfront of you come on, you press your brakes, but nothing happens…what do you do?”
I scream again.
“Yes, Ms. Summers?”
“WHY ARE MY BRAKES FAILING!”
“Not to stereotype…but I’ve always thought that I should teach a class for women on car maintence and automotives.”
Now, ordinarily he would get the Dawn Summers patented glare…but I was too busy figuring out what the hell I am going to do with my brakes failing, exploding tire, burning hood death trap.
Next scenario: You are in bumper to bumper traffic in the Holland Tunnel when your car starts to overheat. What do you do?
Umm…the two women drew this one and they said “turn off the car and call 911.”
Wilson said “yes, because you will need the police when the drivers behind you beat you to death with their fists.”
I raise my hand…knowing that I am pushing the bounds of “there are no stupid questions” and ask why the car overheats.
Wilson gave us another chance to win our free tuition when he had us identify 30 signs in 100 seconds. No one could do it.
We were starting to suspect he had no intention of ever giving us that free tuition.
We then did a demonstration about seatbelts.
He asked the class if they always wore seatbelts and everyone said yes. Except the Nigerian woman who said “no, cause they squeeze her breasts.”
Wilson then asked the following followup question: You wear your seatbelts in the backseat? In cabs?”
Almost everyone said no.
And then he asked “why…do you think the car is not going 30 mph when you are sitting in the backseat?”
This is when he explained what happens to the human head when it hits the windhield.
I screamed and screamed.
And vowed never to get in a car again.
I scream now.
He then did an exercise in aggressive driving where he asked us what we do when we are in a line to get on the FDR off teh Brooklyn bridge and some guy tries to squeeze in front of us from the right lane.
Almost everyone said they would let him in only if he asked nicely.
Wilson said “where do you want idiot drivers? In front of you or behind you?”
All in all it was a great class. I know nothing about cars or the road (did you know that the interstates and route number have directional significance? Or that all traffic signs can be identified immediately by shape and color and that there are such things as blue lines! Or that white lines mean stuff…) but Wilson made that class interesting and inspired me to go learn all of driving safety.
Of course, that I know what to do in the events of these road emergencies doesn’t mean the teenager behind me has any clue…which gets to Mr. Wilson overarching theme: “Bad drivers kill good drivers everyday.”
Not that it will matter…cause I am never getting in a car again.