A Driving Lesson Learned

By all rights, I should have received my drivers license when I turned sixteen in the fall of 1968. The problem was that I flunked the driving test portion of driver’s education class. I got an A in the classroom portion but apparently it did not hold much weight against the fact that I didn’t know how to drive within the lines and parallel park. You’d have thought they would have given me a second chance. But, no- it was tough times in the ‘hood and no one wanted to hang around to re-test me. This was during the summer at Austin High School on Chicago’s far west side a few weeks after the riots in the area just to the east of us in the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King.

So, I had to wait until I was I was nineteen in 1971. Besides, my father was not going to pay the exorbitant premiums they charged to teenagers for auto insurance in the interim even if I had passed. Nor would I ever get a chance to drive his car anyway. At the time, his 1964 Rambler and soon to be 1970 Chevrolet were his lifeblood to going to his office and seeing insurance clients and prospects just about any time they were available. I even had to spring for the couple hundred bucks it cost for professional driving lessons at the North Shore Driving School. I don’t recall if I exuded confidence in the instructor with my driving skills. When it came time to go to the Elston Avenue Motor Vehicle Registration Office and do the driving test for real, he came along. For one thing, I needed his car to do the test since I was not going to get my father to take me. For another, he was there to make sure I passed, with a ten spot in his palm ready to give to the examiner. Once I got the license and it didn’t cost him a penny, Dad changed his mind and cooperated in letting me use his car on one condition- that I first drive Ma to the store so that she could shop for groceries. Nice guy, huh?

It did not take long to get my first traffic ticket. Ma and I were going east on Devon Avenue and got into the left turn lane at Western Avenue. I proceeded to follow through on the turn as the light was going from green to red. Immediately, one of Chicago’s finest turned on his blue flashers and siren and the next thing I knew I was being handed a piece of paper and it was not a receipt for a donation to the Policeman’s Ball. Ma agreed with me that I made the turn properly and not after the light had turned red. I subsequently found out that the officer who gave me the ticket was notorious for handing out citations and that most were overturned.

Still, I did not feel that I would get an even chance by going to court without legal representation and yet I wanted to contest the charge. Three violations and one got his license suspended for a year. Violations also affected insurance rates. So, Ma talked to her brother the lawyer who got one of his colleagues who spent a lot of time defending victims of police zealousness at Traffic Court. I called Daniel, the lawyer, and he told me to wait outside the courtroom on the appointed day until he showed up.

I was intimidated by the law enforcement theater of operations. I waited outside but as I did not see Daniel and it was now time for court to convene, I ignored his instruction and went inside the courtroom and sat like everyone else on a hard bench to wait. The bailiff started calling people up to stand before the judge. I was worried that I would get called before Daniel showed up. I prayed that my name was down on the list.

What seemed like forever ticked away but he finally appeared, recognized me sitting inside the courtroom and motioned for me to come out into the hall. He admonished me for not listening to his instruction but then asked if I have two dollars. I figured that I was getting off cheap if all he wanted was two dollars. I pulled the bills out of my wallet and handed them to him. He told me to go back inside and sit down. I saw him then go to the front, give two dollars to the bailiff and the next thing I knew my case is called.

When we were both up there before the judge, the city corporation counsel looked at Daniel and started chatting to him like they were old friends. The judge smiled and instead of asking me how I plead told me that I must sit through a one hour defensive driving film and then I would get back my license.

More than twenty years later, I got stopped again by a Chicago cop and it definitely was my fault that time. I tried to pass a whole bunch of cars on Pulaski Road about two blocks north of Irving Park Road in one shot. Stupid me did it practically in front of the police station and with a squad car two cars behind mine. I got off by paying the fine and taking an online traffic safety course that at completion wiped the infraction from my record.

I’d rather have given the bailiff two dollars or whatever inflation makes it worth more than thirty years later. But, I guess that’s progress.

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