What was I doing sitting in a car careening from lane to lane of the Golden Gate Bridge, my heart in my throat, while Mrs. Cerf, my driving student, freaked out? Maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of drama, I thought. Maybe I should have turned down the job.
I’d had to find some way of making a living after leaving my job as an Advance County Planner before they fired me. A bad reaction to LSD had pushed me over the edge to the point I couldn’t do the required math. Now here I was, in my first job after I could work again, teaching driving in San Francisco, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Mrs. Cerf, please stay in the center of your lane, I mouthed without much conviction, ruing my mistake of missing the last turnoff and letting her get on the bridge. So here we were, having to go all the way across. Because I was inexperienced, I didn’t grab the wheel with my left hand as I would have later, believing she might think me rude. I just sat helpless with nonsense going through my mind: Why does the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.
It must have been beginner’s luck; we didn’t hit anything. As soon as we were able to turn off and park, I got behind the wheel and drove us back across, all the way to American Universal Driving School on Geary Boulevard. My first student had almost been a disaster, but I decided to keep trying. There was something appealing about riding around all day in the sunshine. And the instruction car had a brake on my side too.
I’d majored in psychology at Cal. Perhaps there was a chance to use that knowledge with people who were under stress, some acutely so. And I’d be looked up to as kind of a guru of driving by some students; I liked that. Plus my creative writing training at San Francisco State University’s graduate school might be useful too; I could write about my experiences. Most of all, I needed the money. The amount I’d drawn out when I withdrew from Alameda County’s pension fund was almost gone.
Talk about being looked up to, here was an example. I picked up Dara in the Marina District where her one-room apartment was located. She was a very good looking Italian American of 23 with an olive complexion and dark hair. I was happy to teach such a nubile woman. And she needed instruction: she’d never driven before except for a few lessons in high school driver training.
I took her all over the city, giving lessons in several phases of driving, but remember best the time I had her going north on the stretch of Divisidero Street that descends precipitously to the Marina District, the street featured in the popular chase movie Bullitt where both cars went airborne. The street descends at a forty-five degree angle, but is intersected by several cross streets where it levels out in a sort of stepladder arrangement.
We didn’t go airborne, but another dangerous thing happened. As we headed down the sharp incline, I said, Okay, Dara, put the car in second gear so engine compression will help us keep our speed down. That will save the brakes and make it easier to control. Dara reached down and, instead of second gear, moved that automatic transmission gearshift all the way into reverse. With my left hand I immediately shifted it back. After that the lesson went smoothly and I explained what she’d done.
The next time I saw her, she said she’d told her boyfriend about the incident. Bob said he would have killed me if I’d done that to his car. He told me you must be a saint not to let that bother you! I feel very safe when you’re here. Thank you so much for putting up with me!
For the first time I realized how much gratitude I could get for doing this, the only job I’d ever had where that might occur. Students’ thanks were like a drug to me. And I went one on one with a variety of people, anyone who could afford the $15 to $20 an hour we charged. I enjoyed meeting people so this was an ideal job for me although I only got $5 an hour of instruction, not counting time spent driving to pick up students (which could be considerable). Being a driving instructor isn’t so bad. It’s a lot better than sitting in an office all day, I said to myself.
As the first months went by, I successfully taught a variety of people, from teenagers to new widows. I reveled in the freedom it brought them, not minding that it was sometimes quite nerve racking (less so as I gained experience and became more willing to take control when need be). When I thought students were ready, I took them to the Department of Motor Vehicles for their license tests and was proud when they passed.
My second unusually difficult student (after Mrs. Cerf who totaled 120 hours with other instructors and passed the driving test on her ninth try) was Chris, a diminutive dark-haired, female social worker who had seizures controlled by two drugs, dilantin and phenobarbitol. She’d begun instruction with my friend Rich Farmer, but had complained about him to the management (Rich was having mental health problems far worse than mine, and could say outrageous things). Knowing I had a degree in psychology, the office had assigned her to me.
Chris’s problem was lack of alertness: she failed to notice hazards in time, probably because of the heavy drugs she was taking. She had a bad case of tunnel vision, seemed unable to cope with people and objects coming from the side. I decided to take her to Union Street in the Marina District, and other areas where there were many jaywalkers and cars pulling out of parking spaces.
As the lessons progressed from ten to twenty hours, she kept making the same errors. I began to think she mightn’t succeed. I wanted to find out whether it was worthwhile to continue teaching her, so I decided to keep a running count of the number of times each hour I had to use my dual brake. I taped a tally sheet to the dashboard, made a check mark each time she was in danger of hitting someone or something.
What are you doing with that list? she asked. Are you trying to discourage me by using negative reinforcement (like me, she was well-versed in psychology)?
I’m keeping track of the number of dangerous errors you make each hour, I replied. If they don’t decrease, we’ll know driving isn’t for you. I don’t want to waste your money by giving you scores of lessons when it’s obvious you aren’t improving.
Chris desperately wanted to drive. She was in therapy and had discussed this with her psychiatrist who’d agreed she should take lessons. Almost every day she had to ride busses to different parts of the city to visit clients. She needed to drive, especially for the more distant assignments. I liked her so much, I’d have given her lessons for free if that were required, but the obstacle wasn’t money. After twenty hours of instruction and practically praying that she do better, I felt quite frustrated.
The data on the dashboard wasn’t changing; every hour of instruction brought two or three possible accidents. Finally I had to tell her she should give it up. That was a sad moment for both of us. I wanted to take her for a farewell drink, but she couldn’t tolerate alcohol because of her medications. We hugged before I left for the last time. I learned a valuable lesson from my time with her: not everybody can drive even if they seem intelligent and I do my best to teach them.
Dave Hammero and I were fellow instructors at American Universal and grew to be close friends. He was a tall guy from Minnesota, Norwegian American, Norsk, as he put it, who had been a high school basketball star. He was one of the best driving instructors I’d met, even intending to start his own school one day. Dave claimed that we were practically guaranteed not to have accidents in our own cars because of all we learned while teaching people. He was an exponent of The Smith System of driving that advised us to leave as much space as possible all around our cars.
One evening, after a hard eight hours of teaching, I was on my way home to 40 Clover Street where I lived with my wife Sandy. Clover was a single block street and to get to it I had to cross Eighteenth Street which slanted down from Upper Market to the Castro District. I reached the stop sign and waited, looking left and right, then quickly gunned it to cross swiftly because I saw only a small opening.
As I reached the center, I heard a thump and realized, to my total horror, I’d hit a man’s scooter, winged a big white wooden box on the back. My heart was in my throat as I realized I could have killed him. I pulled over on the other side. That driver, a large man dressed in blue denim, had pulled over too. I wondered if he were going to get physical with me. I fell all over myself apologizing. I was practically crying, embarrassed even more because I’d been driving a car with Driving School signs all over it; What an advertisement! I thought.
He hadn’t been hurt and the box on the back of his scooter just had a little chip in it. One inch to the left could have sent him tumbling and been a fatal accident. I thanked my lucky stars it hadn’t been worse. I’d completely failed to see his little scooter coming down the hill; it probably had been hidden behind one of my car’s window posts.
That day I learned Dave’s accident free assertion wasn’t true. After a long day of high alertness while riding with students, and coping with their errors, I’d felt relieved to get in my own car and drive myself home, thinking I could finally relax; nothing bad could occur with me behind the wheel. After the scooter incident, I realized I had to watch just as carefully in the driver’s seat as on the instructor’s side; otherwise I was an accident waiting to happen. Ironically, I’d talked to my students about fatigue, but had failed to recognize it in myself.
Occasionally a student would be so naïve he or she thought, since the car was automatic and had power steering, it would do things it wasn’t designed to do—like steer itself. The most flagrant example of sheer ignorance (or purposeful mistake) I saw was when I attempted to instruct a woman who told me she’d been a teacher in the Philippines, but hadn’t ever been behind a car’s wheel. Ms. Pugao, a woman in her early thirties was quite pretty, which I liked. She seemed alert and intelligent so I thought she’d be easy to teach.
The first lesson I gave her was on a straight, divided road bordering Glenn Park. We were nearing John Glenn high school at noon. I wanted to stay away from the mob of students and cars pulling out, so I asked her to make a U- turn through an opening in the median strip.
She exclaimed, Something’s wrong with this wheel; It won’t turn all the way!
I reached over with my left hand to assist her, but couldn’t turn it very far either. To my amazement I saw that, without my noticing, she’d put her seat belt through the steering wheel, pulled it to her lap, and buckled it (seat and shoulder belts were separate then). She’d been driving in this condition three or four minutes, and I hadn’t noticed.
I had a set routine for new students: I’d explain what the different controls were for, assist them in getting the seat and mirrors adjusted; I’d ask them to fasten their seat belts, help them find the receptacle the metal tab went into; even, if necessary, go around to the driver’s side and open the door to do it for them. But I’d never imagined a student would do what Ms. Pugao did. I learned from that to expect the unexpected, as I’d been advised by the California Driver’s Handbook.
Later, when I thought about the incident, I recalled I’d mentioned to her I might write a book about my driving instruction experiences. Perhaps she made that crazy error to be mentioned; I had no way of knowing. But here’s your part of my story, Ms. Pugao, if, by some stroke of luck, you’re still alive after all these years, and able to read this.
Some of my teaching failures were due to cultural differences, language barriers, and other difficulties dealing with an international clientele. I lost one student, a Japanese businessman who spoke almost no English, because he wanted to stop in the midst of a downtown lesson to fetch his briefcase. I couldn’t understand the name of the building he was trying to pronounce. Guessing at the building’s location, I inadvertently stopped at another structure three blocks away from it. As I sat there trying to make sense of what he was saying, he suddenly jumped out of the car and began running.
He ran down three long city blocks, then came flying back with his briefcase in his right hand. I apologized, but don’t believe he understood. Either he thought I was trying to cheat him because we were on the clock, or he felt too embarrassed to continue his training. He never called to schedule another lesson.
On other occasions, unexpected things caused students to quit. I lost Mrs. Becker, a comely sixty year old widow I liked very much (She gave me a German Stollen Christmas cake from The Sunset Bakery where we used to stop for coffee breaks), because I put the black Mercedes her husband had left her through a carwash. That made hundreds of tiny scratch marks on the pristine finish. I hadn’t realized that her husband had always buffed the car by hand with a soft cloth. I apologized profusely, but that did no good.
Actually I was rather relieved not to be teaching Mrs. Becker because she’d insisted on having the lessons in the Mercedes. She’d driven some many years before, but had left that chore to her husband when he was alive. She had a constant battle with nervousness. Usually I succeeded in calming her, but she’d occasionally lose it completely and become immobilized. Once she froze in the middle of the intersection of Junipero Serra and Sloat Boulevards. The light turned green and she failed to go
I said, in what I thought was a comforting, calm tone, Mrs. Becker, you have a green light. Take your foot off the brake, put it on the accelerator. Be calm and do this slowly. There’s no reason to panic!
She said, They’re blowing horns at me!
Me: Don’t worry about that; just get going!
Every time a horn blows within hearing distance, many driving students think it’s for them. I call it beginner’s paranoia. But in this case the horns actually were for us. Finally that sweet lady calmed down enough for us to start again, releasing a stream of cars that charged like race horses coming out of the gate.
Mrs. Becker’s incident was only one of many times driving students held up traffic. Quite a few older men and women I taught seemed to think going slower was safer; several came for lessons because they’d failed their driving tests by not keeping up with the flow. My job was to convince them to speed up. Once in a while, I’d get someone who just couldn’t endure going fast enough to blend with traffic. I’d do my best to convince him or her to give up driving. A few were issued special licenses that restricted them to slower surface streets.
The most unlikely student I ever had was a woman with a condition called bradykinesia, a disability from an earlier accident that resulted in her doing everything very, very slowly. When I first picked her up, Mrs. Goldman, a well-dressed woman of fifty, requested that I drive her to Presbyterian Hospital so she could get a note from her doctor to present to the DMV. Otherwise, in her condition, they wouldn’t grant her a Learner’s Permit. I don’t know what she said or did, but, after twenty minutes, she emerged with his signature on a note that said, to my amazement, she was capable of learning to drive.
Mrs. Goldman could walk with a cane, but she wasn’t very mobile. Everything took longer with her. Just signing her name at the Department of Motor Vehicles took her at least thirty seconds. She told me, I’m dee–terr–minn–ed to dd–rive! I gave her ten hours of in-car instruction, during which I had to take control most of the time. It was obvious to me that she couldn’t be a safe driver.
I tried to discourage her, saying she’d never be able to pass the driving test, but this didn’t faze her. Finally I refused to continue the lessons. I said, Mrs. Goldman, I don’t want to waste your money. I’m sorry but I can’t go on with this! You and I both know you’ll never be able to drive safely. I let her off at her house with that message, thinking that would be the end of her futile attempts. She phoned our office and complained about me. The next week I saw her out for a lesson in a car from National Driving School, one of our competitors.
Another surprisingly difficult student, Monsieur Sequin, a balding, heavyset French gentleman about sixty years old, told me he managed a hotel in the Tenderloin. I thought it amusing that he’d shout Merde!(shit) every time he made an error. A typical adventure with him occurred when we were traveling down Van Ness Avenue and he suddenly turned left.
I said, Monsieur Seguin, I didn’t tell you to turn. Why did you do that?
He replied, See zat car up zere?
He turned left!
Three days in a row I attempted to teach Monsieur Sequin proper uphill parking techniques, taking him to a steep hill on a street adjacent to the Presidio of San Francisco. With all the hills in the city, this was a very important skill to learn, one neglected by many drivers, who could get a ticket for not doing it properly.
The first day, when I talked him through the maneuver, he did it perfectly; the second day in the same spot, he pulled over and parked as if we were on a level street. I said Monsieur Sequin, we’re on a steep hill. You have to turn your wheels out so you can back the right front wheel against the curb. That’s for safety: if you get bumped, your car won’t go down the hill.
On the third day, in the exact same place I used to teach uphill parking, I pulled him over. Again, he didn’t secure the right front wheel. I said, Don’t you remember how we did uphill parking the last two days in this same spot?
He replied, Is this uphill?
It dawned on me: Monsieur Sequin was senile and couldn’t remember anything from day to day. I finally requested that he quit attempting to drive.
Another person I asked to give up driving for safety’s sake was an 89-year-old retired Army general. He said, I’m Major General Edwin C. Walker. I can drive perfectly well, but they flunked me on my test. That young examiner didn’t like officers. He was prejudiced against me!
I wanted to believe his story, so allowed him to have a lesson in his own car, a Cadillac (with no dual brake). As he drove away from his mansion in the Seacliff area of the city, I noticed he was weaving slightly.
Have you done your own driving?, I inquired. It had occurred to me that, like many high-ranking officers, he might have had enlisted men driving him everywhere he went.
He said, I did plenty of driving. I had a policy of driving myself.
We came to T intersection with a stop sign. I asked him to turn left onto Fulton Street, a four-lane thoroughfare alongside Golden Gate Park. I saw him move his head left and right, then he turned precisely into the path of an oncoming car. Luckily, that driver slammed on his brakes and did a desperate evasive maneuver, just missing us.
I’d been watching the general’s eyes and was certain I’d seen him look both left and right. Then I had an idea; I asked him directly, Do you have any vision problems?
Oh, yes, he replied, I’m blind in my left eye, and have cataracts in my right.
I said, Sir, I think you ought to have an honorable retirement from driving!
This ramrod-straight fellow, who had lost his wife the year before, began sobbing. I got behind the wheel, drove us back to his house, spent the next half hour trying to comfort him, but reiterating that he shouldn’t continue attempting to drive. I was sorry for the old guy, but hell, he wasn’t safe.
Most of the people who became my students could learn to drive up to my standards after ten, twenty, or thirty hours at the most; however, as one can see from the General and others, some were absolutely hopeless cases. I remember them with some degree of fondness, mixed with a touch of regret. If they’d driven before, it was almost like giving them a death sentence to request they abandon their attempts.
One man, a rabbi of a temple in San Francisco, was partially paralyzed from a disease he’d acquired in the tropics. He convinced me to take him in his own car. I usually didn’t do this, but thought he was a special case.
He said, Before I got this disease, I was a good driver. I haven’t driven for a while, but believe I only need a brush up course now, so I can pass the drivers test.
Before we exited the parking space, he hit the Chevy in back, then the Volkswagen in front. There was not enough damage to stop the lesson right there, but I was a bit shaken. When we were finally in the street, I held my breath till we could find a curb parking area large enough for him to make it in without a problem.
Once in a while I had some unexpected successes too. I taught one Japanese businessman almost entirely by pointing where I wanted him to go, pantomiming what he should do in parking, etc. He spoke no English and brought a thick Japanese-English dictionary he put on the dashboard. He only used it once or twice during his ten hours of lessons, after which he passed the driving test with an almost perfect score.
A few people I taught struck me as dangerous, not so much as drivers, but personally. I took out one man who said he was half eskimo, from Alaska. Like many students he confided in me, but some things he said made me wonder what he might do if he didn’t like the lessons.
Tommy: I told that guy not to fool with me, but he kept it up, so I waited for him at the Trading Post with an axe. I split his skull wide open!
There was also the woman who, when I appeared at her door, said, You’re the psychiatrist, aren’t you? You’ve been sent by my doctor and minister. I know you think I’m crazy!
I said, Did you call American Universal Driving School for lessons? I’m your instructor.
She answered, Now I remember. I did call them. But I know how to drive. All I want to learn is how to parallel park.
In those days parallel parking between four stanchions was part of the state’s driving test. Many drivers didn’t pass because of this. When I took students to the DMV at the end of their courses, I had to wait while they drove out with examiners for their tests. I’d stand by the parking lot, watch my students and other drivers sometimes backing into and over stanchions as if they didn’t exist.
I gave Mrs. Goodale two hours of instruction, concentrating on parallel parking, during which she said, I don’t know what I’m going to do. They’re sneaking in professional ringers against my bowling team.
She sounded like some of the people from therapy groups I’d been in, paranoid and delusional. I wondered if she might be a hazardous driver because of that. I finally decided it wasn’t my job to determine her sanity. After all, I could be classed as mentally unwell also, having been through some serious psychological problems. Technically Mrs. Goodwin was an excellent driver; I was only there to improve her parking skills.
Now, much later, after mulling over my experience with her, I’ve concluded she probably wasn’t as dangerous as some of the teenagers I encountered who acted like they were immortal and took serious risks. I especially remember Johnny whose mother insisted he take lessons even after he’d had driver training in high school. The first day out on his own he was showing off for the kids on his street and ran into a phone pole.
After Mrs. Goodale’s lesson, I was assigned to teach a woman who lived in an apartment house near Golden Gate Park. I found her name next to one of the many buttons in front, pressed it so she could buzz me in. I didn’t notice another young woman park her car, and come up behind me. She heard me pronounce the first woman’s name as I searched for it on the list of tenants.
I was let in and took the elevator up to the third floor. When I got to my student’s apartment, the other woman was already there: she’d run up the stairs ahead of me. The two were in the doorway, having a very emotional conversation. The second woman, a blonde, was saying, How could you betray me like this? You told me I was the only one for you. Now you’re dating men! How can I ever trust you?
Tara : (my student): You have this all wrong. Stop crying! He’s not a date. All I want to do is learn to drive. He’s going to be my instructor.
Second Woman: You mean you’re not going out with him?
Tara: He’s going to teach me to drive, that’s all. You know I’m loyal to you. I love you!
Second woman: Don’t they have any woman instructors?
Tara: I don’t know. He’s whom they sent.
Woman: You had me worried for a while. I’m sorry I’m so insecure!
Tara: Come here, dear. Give me a big hug! (They hug and kiss).
I think, All’s well that ends well!.
At about that time I was sent to the Sunnydale Public Housing Project to pick up a student. When I got there, a young black woman was waiting for me in one of the identical apartments. Knowing it wasn’t the best place for me, a young white man, I thought I’d get her started quickly. As soon as we entered the car, I told her the lessons would be $20 an hour.
She looked at me like I was crazy, and indignantly spit out, You mean I got to pay for this–with my own money?
I said, Sure! The school and I have to get paid.
She said, Well fuck that! exited the car and stomped back to her apartment.
I wondered why she thought she could get lessons for free, then realized she was probably on welfare, used to the government paying her expenses and her children’s too, if she had any.
Another awkward racial encounter took place when I taught Shania, a pretty, young black women to drive in the Western Addition, a predominantly black area. As we cruised down a street at the beginning of her lesson, a man on the sidewalk shouted at her: Get out of that car! You betraying your race!
I guess he thought we were dating, despite the signs all over the car advertising our driving school. Or else he thought she should have had a black instructor. There were no black instructors, so far as I knew, in San Francisco at that time.
Ginger, another student, was a middle-aged, white woman with blonde hair who lived on California Street, and worked in a downtown office building. At first I thought she’d be fun to teach, because she seemed friendly and intelligent. But I was taken aback when she began to ignore my commands
A typical exchange with her went like this: Okay, Ginger, See the intersection we’re coming to? There’s no sign prohibiting a left turn, so we’re going to turn left. Here we are. It’s time to turn left. Turn left, Ginger! Why didn’t you turn left?
Ginger: Because I didn’t want to!
Me: I thought you wanted to learn how to drive. I’m here to teach you, but you have to obey my commands.
Her: I don’t want to!
Me: Really, Ginger, do you want to learn or not? You’re paying me a lot of money to teach you. If you don’t do what I tell you, you might as well quit.
Her: The company I work for wants to transfer me to another office in San Leandro. But they say I have to learn how to drive first.
I suddenly realized Ginger was taking driving lessons because the company had told her to and probably was paying for them. I believe she thought that if she passed the driving test, she’d be transferred against her wishes, so she was determined to fail. I played along with her for a few more hours; then stopped taking her. I don’t know what happened to her later, but hope she didn’t have to relocate.
After I’d worked there for a year and a half, American Universal Driving School declared bankruptcy. I’d suspected the company was in trouble since we instructors had to race to the bank to deposit our checks while they were still good. Once, after I deposited the school’s check in my account, several checks I wrote on that amount weren’t covered. I became very angry about this; Bank of America charged me a fee for each bounced check.
Another thing that angered me was, when I’d first been hired, I’d been required to put up $100 for a bond, so if I stole or lost the school’s money, the company would be reembursed.. That was supposed to be held in a safe account, returnable when I left. I applied for it and found that my boss, Paul Halula, had spent all the bond money trying to keep the company afloat.
Finally the school was taken over by another owner, Bill Azevedo, of International Driving School. His old, brown Studebakers would frequently stall in the midst of lessons, refusing to start again. I had AAA Road Service Insurance, so I called them when this happened.
Me: Hello. I’m a member of Triple A and my car won’t start. Would you please send somebody out?
AAA Person: Your name and number please.
Me: John Laue, __________
AAA Person: I’m looking at your record. It says we responded to your calls seven times already this year. I’m sorry, sir. Seven is our limit. We can’t help you.
My friend Dave Hammero got a job working for a North Beach Driving School whose office was across the street from Washington Park. It was owned by a man named Roberto Vasquez we called The Mad Mexican because he had a reputation for trying to seduce all his women students. Dave told me there was enough work for me, so I switched to that school. I worked there several months, training many people from the North Beach District, mostly Italian immigrants, plus a few Chinese from nearby Chinatown.
Most of the Italians learned fast, so I averaged about ten hours a student. I really liked one young guy called Santo, who introduced me to choice North Beach places like the U. S. Café frequented only by Italians, and people in the know. The Chinese were another thing entirely. For some reason I never could quite figure out, they had more trouble driving than any other group. My Chinese students did live up to ideas some Americans have about Chinese drivers. I thought it must have been due to some cultural quirk I didn’t understand; I doubt it was genetic.
Disgusted with our poor working conditions, too few students, and the lack of living wages, Dave Hammero, Rich Farmer, Ralph Johnson, and I decided to start a union, The Driving Instructors Guild. We met at my second floor flat on Clover Street, on the border of the newly famous Castro District, an area swiftly becoming known as a mecca for gay men. (I saw the last straight bar out of eighteen go gay right after that and met Harvey Milk in his camera shop too).
Although we put a scare into some of the driving school owners, especially U. Hale Gamel, who’d come from Arizona with the notion that he’d rule the San Francisco scene (He owned the largest school in the city before he fled back to John Birch territory), our guild wasn’t all that successful. Too much turnover among instructors existed for us to gain much of a foothold. My good friend Rich had a bout with craziness that sent him over the edge for a while; the rest of us got rather disillusioned, and our union folded.
Roberto wasn’t giving me enough work, so I moved to National Driving School on California Street. That school was owned by an Englishman named Jim Vivian, a first-class cricket player who took much time off to play in tournaments all over the world. Jim, who also had a school for prospective truck drivers, was impressive in manner. He got contracts with three of the most exclusive private schools in the city, Catherine Delmar Burke, Sarah Dix Hamlin, and The Urban School.
I taught the classroom portion (Driver Education), along with some in-car instruction for the first two, which were girls’ schools. When I asked students to create scrapbooks, and do similar projects, their work is still some of the most colorful and comprehensive I’ve ever seen by high school students. They were all children of wealthy, socially prominent families in the city, mostly well-behaved, a pleasure to teach. But I was still working for $5 an hour. Tuition for these schools was very expensive, but instructors got paid only a pittance, not nearly what public school teachers made.
The Urban School was for both sexes, and seemed to be full of non-conformists. I remember giving an in-car lesson to a petite sixteen year old Japanese-American girl from there. She appeared quite shy, but when another car cut us off, to my great surprise, she asked, Shall I give him the finger? I heard that the school was having a minor scandal that week; two of the students had had sex on the roof, and been spotted by people in surrounding buildings.
One of the first students I got from National Driving School was Maria, a Filipina who worked as a maid in one of the enormous mansions in Pacific Heights. She insisted I pick her up two blocks away from that residence. When I asked her why, she said, I don’t want them to know I’m taking lessons. I work six days a week. I only have half a day off and I’m on call then. I owe them a lot of money for bringing me here, and I have to work to pay it back.
Hearing this and other things she confided made me believe she was an indentured servant, practically a slave of these super rich people who were exploiting her. I felt sick about this, but could do nothing to remedy the situation. She never did get her license, stopping after three or four hours of lessons. I believe her employers might have found out.
While I was teaching Sylvia Dalton, another National Driving School student, we got rear-ended on Geary Boulevard. She saw a yellow caution light and panicked: instead of proceeding through (there was time), she slammed on the brakes. We stopped suddenly, but the driver behind us didn’t react in time.
Students had the idea that when a light turned yellow, they’d better stop in a hurry. I told them all about the point of no return, past which they should proceed through intersections, but many had trouble estimating it. I had no way to override their braking, so we had occasional close calls.
The car’s rear end was smashed; however, neither of us was injured. After getting over the initial shock, Sylvia was very apologetic: Oh, I’m so sorry. I know I shouldn’t have done that. I’ll pay for the damage.
I calmed her, saying, Don’t worry; it won’t cost you a dime; the school has insurance for situations like this. It’s not your fault that you’re just learning how to drive. But next time, go through when the yellow light comes on unless you’re too far from the intersection.
Jim had the car fixed by his special mechanic, a German, the same man who worked on Jim’s vintage Rolls Royce (with the license plate reading OWZ-ZAT?–typical Jim joke!). That garage hiked the cost of repair sky high.
Jim got a large insurance settlement that not only paid for damage repair, but also for much lost business. He claimed the car was out of commission for ten days, although it had been fixed in two or three. I thought this unethical, but didn’t protest, which would have been futile anyway. He gave me $100 from the settlement.
Jim was also a yachtsman. A year after I left the school he died by drowning while bringing a boat to San Francisco from Southern California. Just past the Golden Gate Bridge there’s an area of very rough water called the cabbage patch that capsized his boat and dumped him into the sea. I heard he was too seasick to swim to safety.
While working for Jim, I occasionally had students across the bay in Berkeley, and on the North side of The Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Although I did get reimbursed for the gas and tolls, I didn’t get paid for the time getting to where they were, but wasn’t too resentful; I liked the trips.
I’ll never forget Mrs. Torchio, a diminutive Italian American widow of about sixty, whom I picked up at her house in San Rafael.
Her: I can drive but I’m a little nervous on the freeway. I need to take this cake to my daughter in Sausalito (a trip of about fifteen miles). If you ride along with me, I’ll feel safe.
Me: On the way I can tell you some techniques for proper freeway driving. There’s no need to be nervous about that.
We set off on Highway One with her driving her car, a late model Dodge, me in the passenger’s seat. Barely five minutes had passed when at sixty miles per hour she screamed, reached into her glove compartment, pulled out a bottle of bourbon and began swigging. No one had ever done this to me before. Although we instructors often shared stories, I’d never heard of this happening during a lesson, probably because most lessons were conducted in the company’s cars.
After almost fainting from surprise, I got us off at the nearest exit, exclaiming, My God! Mrs. Torchio! Don’t you realize that drinking when you’re driving is one of the most illegal and dangerous things you can do? Why did you do that?
I have diverticulitis! she mumbled.
On the way back to San Rafael with me driving, I wondered what diverticulitis had to do with drinking and driving, but didn’t press her on the subject. Needless to say, that was my only lesson with her.
Of course it could be dangerous, but I liked teaching driving. I enjoyed meeting students of all ages, coping with their physical and emotional problems, seeing most of them pass their driving tests and receiving their gratitude. Many were fascinating people, and we sometimes got close in more than a professional manner. But in some senses it wasn’t a very good job.
In each school, the office had complete control of how many students we got, so we never knew how many we’d have from week to week. Office people were supposed to distribute students fairly among instructors, but sometimes that didn’t occur, especially if you irritated managers, who’d tell the dispatchers to cut you off.
We were encouraged to be salesmen: the more hours we could convince students to take, the more income we, and the driving schools got. Some instructors tried to sell more hours than necessary, but I didn’t. My job, as I saw it, was to see that they were skilled enough to be safe drivers before they took their driving tests. I prided myself on my efficiency in getting this done.
Voted one of the top five instructors in Northern California by the owners association, but frustrated with the job’s low pay, I took more graduate courses at San Francisco State University, earning a General Secondary School Teaching Credential, and a Driver Education Specialist Certificate. I did substitute high school teaching from 1970 to 1973 in several Bay Area schools, traveling to Redwood High on the peninsula, Novato High in Marin County, and others.
Paul Halula, my old boss at American Universal, had become head of the Regional Occupational Program at Ohlone College in Fremont and gave me a weekend job there teaching prospective driving instructors as part of the adjunct faculty. Finally, in 1973, because I possessed the unlikely combination of Driver Education and English specialties, I got a permanent job at Watsonville High School in Northern California where I taught and counseled until retirement.
If I had my life to live over, I don’t think I’d be a driving instructor for all of it. But even with the low pay, difficult working conditions, and our inability to know how much we’d make from week to week, I wouldn’t want to miss out on the better years.
I learned from each of my students. Making their acquaintance and being with them while they went through the trials and tribulations of learning to drive changed me for the better: it made me much more cosmopolitan (I taught people from over twenty countries), more patient with my own and other’s problems, and more compassionate. Not only did these men and women give me a living, but because of them I grew up as a human being.
In the future driving may be obsolete with everyone chauffeured by satellite-guided cars. If I’m around when that happens, I’ll be a little sad to see another skill we treasure going by the wayside. Without much of a stretch, I can imagine an era when we’ve lost the ability to do most things for ourselves. Then if our systems break down, we’ll be helpless. But that’s not very likely, is it?
About the Author: John Laue, teacher/counselor, a former editor of Transfer and Associate Editor of San Francisco Review has won awards for his poetry and prose beginning with the Ina Coolbrith Poetry Prize at The University of California, Berkeley. With five published poetry books and one book of full length prose, The Columns of Joel Mobius, a guide for people with psychiatric diagnoses, he presently coordinates the reading series of The Monterey Bay Poetry Consortium, edits the online magazine Monterey Poetry Review, is a member and former Co-Chair of the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Advisory Board.
Artwork: Allen Forrest has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books, the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements, creating emotion on canvas.
Portfolio: published works
Recent paintings available for sale: