"Don't tell me pregnant women can't get a safety belt around their waist," said Jim, patting his stomach, a large protuberance threatening to pop the bottom button of his shirt. "I'm 279 pounds--down from 394. I've been pregnant all my life and I wear a safety belt. You strap it under the belly, and if there's a sudden stop, the baby can't slip out 'cause it's held in tight."
Hearing this, I figured I might just learn something in traffic safety school after all. I'd been sentenced to come here by Judge Jerry Orbach, my former alderman, in what I was convinced was an act of political retribution. No, I hadn't been speeding around the Loop, cutting in front of school buses, or running little old ladies off the road. My crime was double parking on Randolph Street--or was it really putting up that poster for Helen Shiller, Orbach's opponent, in my window during the last election?
On this night 30 of us criminals had been ordered to the Northwestern Traffic Safety School, where Jim and his partner Ron were going to teach us the errors of our ways. That's Northwestern as in University; I was in Evanston not because I wanted to experience the ivy, but because Malcolm X, Truman College, and the other choices were completely booked.
"Please stand up, state your name and where you are from." These directions were from Ron, one of the two instructors required for this four-hour course. Policemen by day, they teach at night in the traffic safety program put into effect in mid-November.
Ron, decked out in a dark blue suit and a yellow power tie, seemed almost nervous as he read word for word from his teaching manual about what we were going to do. I got the feeling he had done this hundreds of times before but never quite understood it himself.
"I thought they were kidding about the four-hour course. Can we take a vote?" asked a well-dressed black man in his 30s. Now where else could democracy be tested if not in the classroom? I looked the guy over; he could be a precinct captain, I thought. But we never got to vote.
"Doesn't it scare you when you see a little old lady driving behind the wheel with her visor up by her forehead?" asked Ron. The 21 men in the room all laughed and nodded; the 9 women shrugged and chalked it up to male bonding.
"I mean, Vic"--we had name tags propped on our desks--"you got this gorgeous blond in the front seat," Ron continued. "You're heading out on a great date and hopefully a great night. The last thing you want is to be taking your date to the hospital, right?"
Vic laughed nervously, wondering why he was being singled out. In his mid-20s, with dated long hair, he was wearing a leather jacket and a white T-shirt with black sleeves. "Yeah," he said. I wondered how many gorgeous blonds he'd really been with recently.
"The most important lesson in defensive-driving skills is the three Es," said Ron. "Education, engineering, and enforcement." The vinyl charts propped on a display stand illustrated all three points. We looked at page after page of cartoons of hills, weather conditions, and curved and straight roads. But there wasn't one little double-parked car in sight.
"Education is one of the most important defensive techniques. What's a seat belt going to do? Wrinkle your shirt when you have a hot date, Vic?" Vic gave him one of those cool macho shrugs. "No, it'll save your life."
A movie screen came down and I prepared myself for bloody scenes of the damage done by careless drivers. I'd heard about these movies and was looking forward to this part of the evening.
But instead, cartoon people popped on the screen and demonstrated some common driving mistakes. The examples included two scenes of parents picking up their children from school. In one episode, two mothers pick up their children and total chaos erupts in the car. The other situation shows a husband and wife strapping in their kids in the backseat, fastening their own seat belts, and heading away. Of course, the two mothers hit the other couple's car because the driver was preoccupied.
After a barrage of similar examples, I realized, wow, most accidents are caused by older white women and single mothers. One look around the room, however, suggested that most accidents were caused by young white guys.
After a ten-minute recess, Jim took over, giving Ron a much-needed rest. In a thick Kentucky accent, Jim carefully explained that the only person on the road you can trust is yourself. "One person dies every nine minutes," he said. "That means, since we've been sitting here, 18 people have died. Every 18 seconds someone is injured in or by a car and a report is filed. That means we spend $5,821 a second in vehicle damage." He paused. "One out of every five drivers had a car wreck this year. One out of every 20 drivers are drunk." He said he'd like to control how and when he dies. "When I'm 87 I want to be shot by (somebody's) 19-year-old boyfriend--not until then. Then I'm going to lie in the hospital until I'm 92 and use up all of my Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and pension money and let my children work for their own money."
I was thinking, all right, I'll never double park again, let me go home. But another hour went by with Jim droning and the man who wanted to vote asking if we could leave. Ron took over for still another hour, reciting verbatim from the official journal on defensive driving. Finally, Jim came back again for the last section. Drugs.
"Now I have really bad sinus problems. Any of you have sinus problems? Allergies?" he asked. "Well, I do and let me tell you, antihistamines are drugs."
Referring to another vinyl drawing on the stand, he pointed to a lineup of symbols for beer and wine, a shot glass of liquor, a needle, pills, and a joint. "Now you all know the rule that a 12-ounce glass of domestic American beer equals six ounces of table wine. Not imported beer or ale: domestic beer," Jim continued. "But domestic beer, table wine, and one ounce of spirits have the same alcohol content."
Everyone nodded enthusiastically--less because we were all drug users than because it was 9:45 PM and we were starting to see the light at the end of this educational experience.
"Now, antihistamines," he said. "When the doctor prescribes something for you, ask him if you can take it and drive. If not, he'll write you something else. I didn't do that once and he gave me something for my sinuses, and when I brought it to the pharmacist and asked him what was in it, he told me it would not only plug up my sinuses but my other end as well."
I had finally learned something: antihistamines can relieve not only colds, but diarrhea.
"And you see this worm that's on fire," Jim continued, pointing to the drawing of a joint. "Now that distorts your perception and reaction time."
He was on a roll about the effects of alcohol and drugs, telling us personal losses of friends and relatives. But I didn't have to look at my watch to figure class was nearly over. People were shifting in their seats, a few coats had found their way onto bodies. Jim, however, didn't give us our Northwestern Traffic Safety School graduation certificates until he was finished.
Finally, I was a free woman, diploma in hand. I'd served my time. Now I knew about the three Es, about little old white ladies, and the side effects of antihistamines. Four hours of indoctrination and not one word about my heinous crime. But I learned something anyway: I tell you, next election, I'm taking no chances.