July 29, 1999
Ticket to Enlightenment
No, I don't mean spiritually or emotionally. I mean literally. I've been lost for pretty much two straight years.
What is the Thomas Guide to me but the Book of Babel? I have a hard enough time just knowing where I am in relation to the water. I have come to accept this about myself, although, as you can imagine, it has led to some pretty hairy driving moments. I'm always that loser who ends up trying to cross four lanes in a nanosecond to make my freeway exit. More than once, I've ended up hovering on one of those little freeway-exit islands, cars honking and fists shaking in my direction.
It doesn't help that I'm easily distracted, prone to drinking coffee and reading my mail while driving lost, which is what I was doing when an officer of the law pulled me over a couple months ago. It seems I didn't come to a complete stop at an intersection. "Hollywood stop," they call it.
Oh sure, I put my head on the steering wheel and cried, but Johnny Law was unmoved. He wrote me out a ticket before I could say, "Officer, I think I'm the second coming of Job."
And that's how I ended up at comedy traffic school, which seemed to be the best of my options. I eyed the "Free Pizza" traffic schools, but pizza is gone in an instant and traffic school is eight long hours of my life.
And in a shocking turn of events, it turned out to be a great experience.
New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, Disneyland -- not fun. Traffic school -- fun. Go figure. In my mind, a pleasant day at traffic school was my karmic comeuppance, payback for all the things that should have been fun but never were.
It didn't get off to an auspicious beginning. The freshly cleaned stage emanated a sickening smell of bleach. The instructor came in, donning orange sneakers and a stupid baseball hat, and I kept wondering why it is that people seem to think wacky hats equal comedy.
"Welcome violators!" she said, clapping her hands together. Oh god, I thought, let the yuks begin. This is a hostage crisis, and I'm the hostage. Where's my yellow ribbon? Call Jesse Jackson.
The instructor launched into her comedy opening, sprinkled with a lot of "hey, people" and "that's all I'm saying, folks."
It was in those early traffic school moments that something dawned on me. They've got you for a day, but that's still a day of your life, a day you'll never get back if you don't make the most of it. As a sort of spiritual experiment, I willed myself to appreciate the day however I could.
It worked. All of a sudden, the instructor got funnier. She regaled us with stories of her years living in Tonga as part of the Peace Corps. She shared her encyclopedic knowledge of traffic.
The rules of the road became fascinating to me. I never knew you had to stop for a full three seconds at a stop sign, or that you can't make a U-turn in a business district. The drunken driving lesson was particularly interesting, as I learned that one little glass of wine could cost me thousands of dollars in legal fees, not to mention the possibility of hurting myself and others. I had no idea it took so little to be legally intoxicated.
The instructor was so emphatic, so obviously sincere in her desire to impart proper driving techniques, that I became touched by her earnestness. She wasn't just an out-of-work comic trying to make a buck; she really cared. And I was grateful for that.
Lunch time found me eating a falafel with a paint salesmen, a window washer and a student, people I might never ordinarily meet in the course of my daily life. We shared a bond as violators, caught in this weird nether world where our lives were put on hold for that all-important completion certificate and where we were stuck with each other, like some kind of "Breakfast Club" for grown-ups.
That completion certificate meant more to me than saving a few bucks on my insurance. What I had completed was a self-taught crash course on personal enjoyment management. Instead of cursing my fate, I chose to pull my negative outlook over to the side of the road and pull a fully legal U-ey.
Life isn't always lemon drops and Julia Roberts movies and fresh-baked bread and dusky walks through the park with a loved one. Sometimes, it's traffic school, and if you can make the most of that, you're a little closer to cruising through life on the high road.
I drove home from traffic school, seat belt buckled and carefully stopping for three seconds at every stop sign, feeling fully apprised of the rules of the road and just a little less lost.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.