Monday, December 18, 2006


In Which We Learn to Drive Again...

Whenever I feel Fate has dealt me a bad hand--such as ensuring that I would get three speeding tickets in EXACTLY one year--to the day!--and therefore be required to take a remedial driver education course--I like to think of someone who is a bigger fuck-up than I am in virtually every category of life. Recalling that person's misfortunes never fails to cheer me.

Luckily, I have a readymade source of precisely that kind of comfort in the form of my Big Brother. As long-time readers can glean, there isn't anything I haven't done that he hasn't done worse (the sole exception being the raising of children. And when it comes to screwing up in that arena, I'm blazing a fresh trail, baby.)

Thus it was that I was able to drag my sorry ass out of bed on the coldest fucking Saturday morning of the year. And as I drove through sleet to Wasteland Community College, way off at that point on the horizon where it looks like the earth is starting to curve, I recalled BB's traffic woes.

For years, one of my favorite stories was the time he was driving home from work as a catering chef in Providence, Rhode Island, and was pulled over by the cops for having an expired, out-of-state tag. BB was still in his white chef clothes and apron and even had that jaunty, poofy chef's hat on the seat next to him. The cops must have thought they'd pulled over the Pillsbury Doughboy. They made him get out of the car and decided to do a search--because you know, when you're dressed as a chef and are cruising around Providence in a piss-yellow Galaxie with New Hampshire license plates, that's probable cause right there.

And it just got worse. On the floor of the passenger seat, the cops found "a cache of concealed weapons"--also known as my brother's personal set of chef's knives (every serious chef has his own set of knives, you know). The best part, though, was when they found a Zip-Loc bag of white powder in the back seat. Before you could say "T.J. Hooker," they had handcuffs on BB and stuffed him, his knives and the suspicious white powder into a patrol car. Off they went to the local precinct, where my brother spent the night as a guest of the city of Providence.

The bag of powder, of course, turned out to be 100 percent, pure, uncut cornstarch, which my brother brought home, as he sometimes did when he was trying out new recipes. So my brother was not arrested for carrying a controlled substance, but they actually made a go of charging him with carrying a concealed weapon, a fact that so enraged my parents that my father--just out of detox and eager to do right by his family--took a day off from work and showed up at BB's court appearance, along with a pretty decent lawyer. In the end, BB got one of those deals where, if he kept his nose clean for a year, the charge would be eliminated from his record.

BB was well-behaved for the next 12 months. But long about the time I was using the Galaxie to get to my summer job, BB bought the car of his dreams--a Crown Victoria. It had once been a police car and BB had bought it at auction pretty much for this fact alone. It definitely looked like an unmarked police car, plus it had some swell extras, like a powerful searchlight you could operate from the driver's side, a switch that let you flash all of your head and taillights at the same time, and a protective grille that separated the driver from the back seat. BB adored that car because at the time BB was sick of being a chef and quickly becoming besotted with the idea of becoming a cop. He never did achieve that dream, alas, so he descended for a while into that pathetic life-form known as the cop-wannabe. When he moved back to New Hampshire, he got a license to carry a handgun and for a while carried a variety of the kinds of pistols he had seen on cop shows--.38 police specials, a .357, and even a Dirty Harry-style .44 Magnum.

Now, I will say that because of the overall appearance of the car, BB did seem to get away with speeding more than the average person. I personally witnessed at least three instances of state troopers or local cops giving him a coply wave as he or they passed. And the one time they pulled him over for speeding, he actually got off with a warning, in part because he started talking in some kind of hip cop lingo ("Sorry, I had a doobie on my tail and almost went Code-13 on his ass. I can give you his tags if you want to go bubble on him" or something like that) that conveyed the impression he was on the job or related to someone who was, so they let him go.

But one day, BB pushed his luck too far. We were driving into town to get to the bank before it closed one rainy Friday and we were stuck behind the world's slowest station wagon. Granted, we were on winding roads in rainy conditions, so one would expect to drive with a little caution, but this woman was going under 20 miles an hour. BB was practically apoplectic. Finally, as we turned at a stoplight to head into town, BB hit the switch that flashed all his lights. Even though the colored bubble lights had long been removed, the flashing lights nevertheless caused the poor woman in front of us to pull to the shoulder, believing she had a cop on her tail. BB zoomed straight by.

And right past the state trooper who saw the whole thing.

Wow, was that trooper ever angry. After yelling at both BB and me (WTF?) for a good 5 minutes, he started talking about arresting BB for impersonating a police officer, a felony offense, by the way. In the end, though, with poor BB reduced almost to tears, he settled for writing BB a fat ticket for reckless driving. And he made him walk back in the rain and apologize to the woman he'd pulled over (yep, she was still waiting on the side of the road, with no fucking clue what was going on).

So, you know, in comparison, me taking a remedial driver's ed course didn't seem so bad, even though it took what seemed like hours to get to the school where it was held, this squat compound of concrete bunkers set in the proverbial middle of nowhere. I was one of 14 cars in the lot when I finally arrived at 7:22. Naturally, all the doors were locked except one, which I finally found at 7:30 and walked in, finding my classroom just as the door was closing in my face.

"Class starts at 7:30!" A high, reedy voice cried from the other side of the door.

I paused, deciding whether or not to stay and pound on the door or just leave. But it was early and I don't think so good when it's early, so before I could make up my mind, the door opened again and there stood a short, sinewy, grizzled old man in pressed khakis and a bright red plaid hunting shirt with one long sleeve. The other sleeve had been cut off at around the bicep in order to expose the pink stump denoting where the rest of the man's right arm should have been.

"Okay!" he cried. "I'm giving you a second chance! Can't be late!" he cried, then ushered me in.

For the rest of the morning, it was as though I'd traveled back in time to every boring college course I'd ever taken. There were a dozen of us, me and my fellow speeders, but none of us was too swift that morning, except perhaps in our ability to bump the desks with our foreheads as we nodded off from time to time.

The man--his name was Leonard--seemed unperturbed by our lack of attention. He lectured to us for three straight hours in that reedy voice of his, reading from the state-approved driver retraining book and almost never making eye contact with us.

Eventually, for lack of anything better to do, I began to wonder where the rest of this guy's arm was. Had he lost it in an accident, perhaps while speeding? I'm not a terribly compulsive person, but I am a curious fellow, and it began to gnaw at me.

We finally got a 30-minute break around 11, and I ventured out into the tundra to see if I could find a place to grab a bite to eat. On the way out of campus, I just happened to spy, of all things, a Crown Victoria not unlike my brother's old ex-cop car. It was just idling in the campus lot near the exit, but I got it in my head that it was there for a reason, so you better believe I drove the campus-mandated 10 miles an hour.

Good thing, too, because on the way back, that car--now sporting colored lights from its grille--had pulled over one of my hapless classmates. I never got to find out exactly what happened, because the poor woman never returned to class. But I did mention what I saw to Leonard when I returned and he just cackled and scratched his chin with his one good hand.

"Yep, the local police know when we're doing the courses here, and these roads are not private property--they can pull anyone over," he said in between cackles.

"So, they lie in wait for people from this class?" I asked, incredulous. "That's awful!"

My indignation must have amused Leonard, because for the rest of the class, he seemed to take a liking to me. When he'd pause in his reading to ask questions of the class, he'd pick me two out of three times. Finally, we got a second break, after which we were going to take a written test to see how much of Leonard's nattering we'd absorbed. While on break, I happened to open my wallet to extract a phone number I was going to need, and out fell a photo of Thomas playing with some toy trains.

Leonard pounced on it. "That your boy?" he asked, handing it back. "Likes trains, huh? Well, I'm a railroad man myself. Twenty-eight years on the Pennsylvania Railroad."

I looked up. I couldn't help myself. "So is that how--?" I asked, pointing at his missing arm.

Leonard nodded seriously. "Got it caught between two cars, pinched it right off. Never did find the arm. Almost 20 years ago, that was, and my damn elbow still itches!" he said, pointing to the approximate spot where his elbow would have been, had it not been pinched off and carried away by a couple of boxcars.

We traded a few stories--I told him how my great-grandfather, a railroad man himself, had lost an earlobe--and I decided that Leonard would have been an interesting guy to know, if I hadn't had such a chip on my shoulder about coming to his class.

We had to cut short our reminiscences, though, as the break ended and Leonard handed out a two-page test. The room was filled with tension because, to be honest, most of us had completely tuned Leonard out. But we needn't have worried, because the test was almost all multiple choice and Leonard was offering copious help to people as he walked up and down the rows of chairs.

I went through the test fairly quickly, but my problem with multiple choice tests is that I always assume the person writing them has decided to throw in a trick question or two, some poison dart hidden there on the paper that renders you stupid and unmoving. In my case, it was a question about what the speed limit is when there's no marked speed limit. I knew it was 25 in residential areas, but wasn't it higher on the highway? In fact, I was sure I'd seen plenty of signs showing that minimum highway speed was 40. And both 40 and 25 were among the four choices I had.

I sat there for a moment, drumming my pencil, when I heard the high, reedy voice close in my ear. "Aw come on!" he said. "Don't know the state mandated limit in unmarked zones? Come on! You know it! We just discussed it!"

"I--" I started.

"Don't tell me you don't know it. Come on. Tell it to me and I'll tell you if it's right."

"Well," I said haltingly. "It's either 40 or 25, because on the highway--"

Leonard waved at me to shut up. "Don't give me bullshit, son!" he squawked in that reedy voice of his. "Give me a number!"

"I'm really not--" I started.

"Come on! A number!" he cried, spraying a bit of spittle on me.

"I'm not sure, okay? I'm STUMPED!" I blurted.

I think my little Freudian slip would have passed unnoticed, if at that moment everyone else in the class hadn't started snorting and snickering. Leonard's mouth snapped shut as though someone had thrown a switch and he looked involuntarily at the stump of his arm, then at me.

I couldn't have been more mortified if I had been asked to apologize to a woman I had just pulled over. "I'm so-- I didn't--" I spluttered.

"It's 25 in an unmarked zone," Leonard said shortly, then he marched straight up to the front of the class and sat down.

At the end, when we all got up to hand in our tests, a couple of my classmates smiled at me--one even patted me on the back--and I realized we'd all been taken by the man's missing appendage but none of us had said anything about it. And you'll be pleased to know that once everyone else left, I did proffer a complete, if awkward apology for speaking out of turn. Leonard, to his credit, waved it away. We said a few words about local train depots and places to take my son, then we shook hand and I exited from Leonard's life, stage left.

Outside, the sleet had turned to snow. There were only three cars left on the premises: mine, an old pickup I took to be Leonard's, and the unmarked car on the other side of the road. As I slowly pulled out, the unmarked car got into close formation behind me, which considerably tightened my various sphincters, I'll tell you. As I trolled along at 10 miles an hour, the car pulled so close behind me, it seemed like I could reach back and honk its horn.

As we neared the stoplight to take us off campus and out to the main street, I turned right and thought surely this was when the car would also turn and flash its lights, and pull me over for some undefined violation. But instead it went the other way. So much for my chance at a looped ending to this narrative.

Like my brother, I kept my nose real clean for the next two years, right up until just last week. I'm still stinging over the speeding ticket, not just because I got one for going a few miles over, but because even though I was supposed to get a clean slate after a year of good driving, the truth is your record follows you. When the cop handed me my latest ticket, he couldn't resist saying, "You better be careful, MM. This is your fourth speeding violation in three years." Apparently, when he pulled my record up on the computer, he could see all of my sins, but nothing to tell him I had spent a snowy morning learning driver safety from a one-armed man.

Instead of a smart remark, I just bit my tongue and went for self-deprecation. "Sorry, officer," I said, sheepishly. "If the lead shoe fits..."

The officer laughed, He liked that one, he said. He was going to tell that one to the guys at the station, he said. He wished me a good night and happy holidays, too.

But he still gave me the fucking ticket.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

What the FUCK? You had to bring that up, didnt you? I was NOT a cop wanabe. If you recall, someone hadda get to the bank befor it closed and kept saying PASS HER!! PASS HER!! YOU should have got the fucking ticket.

MM, you do truly have a gift with choosing words, sometimes...I think you might have had a "Freudian slip" there in class.

I still can't believe you got a ticket for 41 in a 35. Good luck fighting that one.
Weird. My driver's ed instructor from high school was missing an arm too. He had a hook, and I did often wonder how he'd lost it. The rumor was he'd had his arm out of a car window when he was a kid, and it'd been ripped off by an oncoming vehicle.

Certainly gave those blood and guts accident films more heft.
Far be it from me to make an unqualified assessment of legal talent, but... BB is a chef, he was driving with a set of chef's knives in the car, and he got a 12 month suspended sentence? Doesn't sound like a very good lawyer to me.

I would have had to have brought those cops onto the stand at some point.

"Officer Nutley, you found a set of chef's knives in my client's car, correct?"


"You are aware that my client is a chef."


"And you found a bag of white powder, which you confiscated. Would you please tell the court what the contents of that bag turned out to be?"


"And this all adds up to a crime, Officer Nutley?"


Judge: "Case dismissed."

Then again, it was Rhode Island, so...
"then we shook hand"

did you do that on purpose?? LOL
HALO-ing in Ninja-style to say,

... Happy Holidays! :-)
If it makes you feel any better, I have a friend who just got three speeding tickets in a week. Yes, a week.
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