During one hair-raising summer the author taught for the largest private driver’s education company in Oregon. This low-budget family operation met the responsibility of preparing kids to drive through questionable business practices, deteriorating vehicles, and negligible instructor staffing. Life In the Slow Lane is an irreverent glimpse into the bizarre world of driver’s education, where the cars might keep dying but the kids always persevere.
Thomas gives an overview of the book:
At noon I head out to Beaverton, an unfamiliar suburb on the outskirts of Portland, to teach yet another driving lesson. I need some fun after this morning’s travails, and I get a pleasant break. I have three kids in the car, which can be entertaining if the human dynamics work. If they’re in a good mood I become a single parent on a two-hour, in-city road trip. If not, it’s like I’m smuggling them across the border. Thankfully, these kids seem fun.
We roll out of the school parking lot with the air-conditioner blasting and start driving down a main commercial strip. At the second light we see a person inside a yellow foam-rubber outfit advertising for some business. A puffy box surrounds his torso, including his head. His arms and legs, which are clothed in yellow fabric, jut out from small openings in the suit. The pitchman looks like SpongeBob without the face.
“Man, that has got to be hot,” I say as we approach Foam Rubber Person.
The kids agree. We all look closely as we drive past.
“Did that guy have an opening for his head?” one students asks.
No one can seem to remember.
“Okay,” I say, “we’ve got to figure this out. Take the next right.”
We swing around the block, doing four rights and ending up back on the main drag. I tell the driver that, as much as I’d like to let her look, she needs to keep her eyes on the road. I don’t know how I could justify a crash if it happened. With a grinning smirk she agrees.
We stop at the light and everyone leans forward, squinting at Foam Rubber Person. He’s spinning and waving at passing cars, preventing us from getting an answer to our question. The light turns green and we approach our target. At the last second he spins away from us. We all let out a groan.
“Okay,” I say, “let’s try again.”
We circle the block and approach our yellow target once more. On this pass I direct the driver slow way down. We creep up to Foam Rubber Person, the car barely moving. Looking over, we see a small mesh screen at eye level, an opening probably six by six inches. The advertiser looks straight at our car and stands still. Behind the mesh I see two unblinking eyes as we crawl past.
* * * *
Later that day I head out to teach a “retail client”. I haven’t done one of these yet and don’t have any info on the student, so the game plan for the lesson, as far as I can tell, is to do “whatever.” I drive to West Linn, an area completely unfamiliar to me, and pick up another aging American vehicle, a silver Ford Taurus. It looks like the kind of car a manager at a Jack in the Box would use to pick up an escort for his high school reunion. I go to open the car and my key doesn’t work. I try the passenger side door and it unlocks. Apparently they went for the Dukes of Hazzard option on this brute. When I open the door I’m hit by a wave of what smells like silly putty. I kneel on the seat, reach across the console, and unlock the other door.
I walk around the back of the car and enter on the driver’s side. The paneling, loosened from decades of use, flaps when I pull the door shut. I reach down to make sure the car is in park, but my hand grabs empty air. Looking at the wheel I see a large lever attached to the steering column. The last time I saw a gear shifter like this was when a flatbed towed away our family station wagon sometime in the 1980s.
I start the car and fiddle with the unwilling lever, feeling like an actor portraying a fugitive on America’s Most Wanted. I glance at the dashboard and shut the car off with a sigh. I can’t show up with it looking this grimy, definitely not professional. Searching through the console and the rear seats I don’t find any wet wipes. I slip out of the car and head for the trunk. Opening the lid I half expect to see the owner’s father’s walker. Who knows where this car came from? Probably New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina.
I find some wet wipes, get back in the car, and scrub. I finish my cleaning and look at the pads. They’re jet black and filled with tiny hairs. I really hope the hairs came from the owner’s poodle.
I start the Taurus and burn through the empty lot, halting at the entrance to let traffic pass. It’s time to test out this ill-natured beast. Swinging onto the road I gun the engine and accelerate rapidly, feeling like a bounty hunter in hot pursuit.
I lumber up a ridge filled with huge, classless new homes. For this amount of money you think you’d get some architecture, but maybe that’s now passé. Between curves in the road I read my MapQuest directions, searching for the address I got from the owner’s son, who is now back with the company after Dad fired him last month. My eye glimpses something flashing on the dashboard. In bright orange letters a message tells me to “Service Engine Soon.” I wonder how many years the warning has remained lit up.
Looking out the window I begin to see the full spectrum of ugliness that accompanies new, excessive wealth. Men with mowers and leaf blowers work the lawns and shrubs. The yards are all perfectly green despite the hot, dry summer we’ve had. I pass a number of unathletic residents jogging painfully on the edge of the road, which has no sidewalks. Approaching a ridgetop with expansive views it occurs to me that if everyone lived this way we’d need about four more planets for the required resources.
After one pass I find the house, an enormous faux colonial surrounded by tiny, foot-high evergreens. It sits manor-like, far back from the road. I roll through two columns of creamy, salmon-pink sandstone and reach an unfinished driveway. Bumping over gravel towards the house I see none of the items usually found at people’s homes: no cars, no swing sets, no gardens. I park, get out of the Taurus, and look into the house. It’s empty. As I approach the front door, a guy in coveralls comes out a side door and asks if he can help me. I let him know that I’m here for a driving lesson. He looks at me incredulously. “Oh, the family hasn’t moved in yet,” he says.
I call the office and Michael, our office manager, answers, groaning when I explain the situation. Sounding desolate, he tells me that he’ll contact the student’s father. A minute later the phone rings. The first thing I hear is a loud sigh, followed by a booming voice.
“I’ve’ told them probably five times that that’s the damn billing address!”
As dad barks out directions to the real house, I consider grabbing a nail gun for protection. I jump behind the wheel and barrel down the gravel road in the Taurus, its huge, cop-car hood bouncing over potholes.
When I arrive at the house five minutes later, the father and daughter are waiting outside. I consider veering towards the driveway and plowing into his mail box, just to see his reaction. Looking at the house I can see how they must be cramped and feel the need to move. It’s probably only about 8,000 square feet.
I slink out of the car and approach the pair. The father looks at me through beady eyes set into a round, balding head. He looks like a cookie you’d make at Christmas.
“You’re like the fifth instructor we’ve had,” he snaps by way of greeting.
“Well,” I reply, “maybe they’re saving the best for last.”
He grunts and gives me a long icy look, his forehead creased with disdain. I consider asking him if he’d be willing to do a testimonial for our website.
“Maybe we’ll see you tomorrow, maybe we won’t,” he hisses.
We start talking about his daughter’s lesson. The father reels off a string of errors the girl has committed on past driving tests. He punctuates each with a deep sigh, relating his frustration with her continued failure. The daughter’s standing right there, looking at the ground as Dad recaps her shortcomings. The guy doesn’t seem to have the slightest clue that he’s making her feel like crap. I start fading out from the dialogue and watch his second chin squeeze and bounce as noise pours out his mouth. Glancing at the daughter cowering by his side, I picture the dad lying in a casket at an unattended funeral.
This is a story about(1)the resilience and humor found in teenagers and (2)the unintended costs of trying to save money by privatizing an essential community function. Thousands of teens enter drivers ed each year, and many end up exposed to companies like the one I worked for, who gain customers primarily because the other companies have proven to be worse. Think: Enron for teenagers.