It is a glorious spring day, it is 8 a.m., and I have a horrible cold. I should be in bed, or sitting on my patio broiling my germs in the hot sun. Instead, I am sucking cough drops in a darkened room with brick walls, a black ceiling and a faint smell of old beer.
My fellow prisoners, 40 of us, are a desperate bunch from as far away as Orange County, shuffling our feet, sipping our coffee, checking our cell phones and spreading our papers on the tiny cocktail tables scattered around the room. Young, old and even crippled, we are wary of each other (who knows what horrible depths that one might have sunk to?). We are even more nervous about the tall, thin blonde, a whiskey-voiced woman named Liza Adams. She whips around the room, organizing, cajoling, making jokes. One by one, we each do the perp walk to Liza’s table, giving her our info and handing over a cash payment.
Then Liza grabs an onstage barstool and goes around the room, calling each of us by our names, without her paperwork. She gets every one right. We are united in amazement and burst into applause. Suddenly the atmosphere, redolent of the boredom of a first day of a bad class in high school, lightens. We desperadoes are ready to be re-educated, here at the Ice House Comedy Traffic School.
With Liza, the rubber meets the road: she’s a no-nonsense, stand-up, straight-up pro, with 14 years’ experience teaching hardened offenders just like us. Her fast-paced, smart class is peppered with jokes, tips and outrageous stories; she squeaks at her punch lines and has a funny little kitty clock that plays reveille for an alarm. I chose this site mainly for its proximity to Euro Pane and El Metate, two of my favorite places to eat; it turns out that I am actually going to learn a few things, relatively painlessly. It’s not a nonstop laugh riot, but it is kind of fun. For traffic school.
As we go around the room and confess our crimes (following too close, running red lights), Liza uses these “teachable moments” to cover the curriculum. We compare our fines (none are less than $250; the highest is a multiple offender with a whopping $1000+ bill). There is a mother-daughter team of speeders, and the bad eggs who have to take twelve hours instead of eight. I proudly confess to speeding up the 14 on the way to Mammoth… while eating a tuna sandwich. I remind myself of Arlo Guthrie at the draft board, sitting with the other nogoodniks, trying to impress them (“litterin’…and creating a nuisance”). The winner: doing 70 mph on El Molino Avenue. Baaaad!
Speaking of El Molino, Liza has a list of hot spots around town, where vigilant cops lurk and careless drivers offend. To wit: the “no right on red” at Baldwin off the eastbound 210; Shoppers Lane; the interchange of the 210 and the 605. “Never, never, never make a U-turn in the middle of Colorado Boulevard,” she urges us. Everyone complains about the photo citations along Union at Lake and Marengo: impossible to fight. (Lately we’ve noticed a lot of lurking motorcycle cops on Orange Grove near the Gamble House (where speeders and accidents are plentiful) and further south on Orange Grove, between Del Mar and the 110 Freeway.)
Liza urges us to carry a disposable camera in our cars to document accidents, and tells us that we could be liable should we let party guests drive home drunk. She coaches us before the test, which she gives us promptly at 4:45. Everybody gets at least a 90 percent. As Liza promised, we all leave as friends and have avoided a rate hike on our insurance to boot. Not bad for 94 bucks ($29 to the Ice House, and $65 to the court), eight hours and a few laughs.
Now if I can just behave myself for 18 months, I’m set. Smile, you’ve just run that red light again!