At about the same time my belt kicked the bucket, unbeknownst to me, Oregon upgraded seat belt laws from a so-called secondary to primary violation. In our adjacent states of Washington and California, where failure to wear a seat belt is roughly considered the same affront as driving with bare feet, traffic cops cannot ticket you unless they have first pulled you over for a major violation, like speeding. But the change in Oregon allows officers--for no other reason--to stop drivers and issue $77 tickets. I found this out the hard way.
One early mid-July morning, as I lumbered through the residential blocks of Northwest Portland on my way to work, I noticed a motorcycle cop following me with his lights whirling. In that elongated moment of disbelief, I continued driving for an entire city block until I found a parking space.
The officer was friendly, and gave me a choice: I could find myself on the receiving end of a spendy ticket, "Or," said the officer, "you can go to seat belt class."
Seat belt class? In high school Drivers' Ed, my favorite film was the one about seat belts. "Some believe it is better to be thrown from your car in an accident," the voiceover ominously intoned, as a pumpkin was chucked from a speeding car, and landed with a juicy, explosive splat. The film continued this demonstration with various produce being tossed from the open windows of different vehicles onto the highway pavement, into a light post, or onto the windshield of an approaching truck.
To me, seat belt class sounded like an okay way to spend a Tuesday evening. And, at only $20, I would save $57 off my ticket to boot.
THE SEAT BELT LADY
Seat belt classes are held with surprising frequency: weekly at Legacy Emmanuel, and on alternating Wednesdays at Legacy Meridian and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. What's even more shocking is the number of people who attend these classes--moreover, for a price, you can rent the "Seat Belt Lady" for private functions.
I anticipated a sparsely filled room, darkened for two hours of gruesome and macabre entertainment. Instead, the room is brightly lit, with more than 300 people jammed in a basement auditorium. So many are there when I arrive--fifteen minutes before the class begins--that people are sitting on the shallow steps of the aisles.
I find an empty chair in the front row next to a chirpy sixteen-year-old. "Isn't this like a fire hazard or something?" she asks me, referring to the crowd packed in like sardines. Driving for nine months, she had already crashed once--which is why she was sitting in seat belt class. "My parents are kind of pissed," she says, smiling.
"I feel like I've been sent to the principal's office," I told her. We laugh, and she goes on playing Tetris on her cell phone's digital display.
Dressed in a dark blue top-and-bottom nylon jogging suit, the Seat Belt Lady meekly steps onto the stage and settles behind a podium. She has dark curly hair and looks like a low-rent Rhea Perlman.
"There was an enforcement push on the Fourth," she announces, explaining why today's crowd is so huge. I calculate, at $20 a pop, the audience has donated around $6000 for tonight's speech--more than most mid-sized theater companies in town rake in for a six-week run.
"My goal is to turn off the faucet on injuries," she begins. "Without seat belts, drivers are like flying missiles. Imagine yourself shot out of a cannon." She smacks her fist into her palm--"Bam! Imagine yourself shot out of a cannon at seventy miles per hour," she repeats. Then, pointing at the near wall of the auditorium, "into that wall."
I brought a stack of postcards so I could write to friends, but I set them aside. "This is going to be good," I think to myself.
"MOMMY'S NOT GOING TO WAKE UP..."
She tells us her name is JoAnn. She has been a trauma nurse for twenty-five years.
What I thought was nervousness, however, does not dissipate over the next fifteen minutes; instead, she is flirting with hysteria. From my front row seat, I can see her eyes glazing over with tears. Her voice begins to crack with anger as she tells us about her first on-the-scene trauma call twenty-five years ago.
Slides flash through a crash scene. Firemen and ambulance drivers mill around a gray and rainy street corner. In the background, a blue Nova is literally wrapped around a telephone pole, like a rubbery cartoon car whose boxy shape has transformed into a crumbled blue blob. The next slide shows a close-up of the car.
"He'd been educated by Hollywood to think the car was one more toy in the toy box," JoAnn explains, referring to the unfortunate driver. I'm thinking the only possible good a seat belt could have done in this situation was to hold the body together, making the coroner's job easier. But I don't dare speak up. JoAnn's voice has taken on a razor-sharp edge; she is alternately pacing the stage and grasping the podium with white knuckles.
The next slide shows a comatose Hispanic woman. Lying on a clean hospital bed, she has two black eyes and tubes running into her nose.
"Mommy's not going to wake up," JoAnn tells us, "because mommy was shot through a windshield."
There is something at once flippant and acidic about JoAnn's voice, sort of like the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live--a voice that begins calmly, but comes screaming around the corner with the obnoxious ferocity of a Schnauzer.
About forty minutes into JoAnn's tirade, I pick up the stack of postcards I brought to class. I begin to write friends around the country about the Seat Belt Lady. Halfway through my second postcard, JoAnn looks out over the class and announces that anyone doing "homework" will be sent away and won't receive credit. Although I am less than ten feet away--and as far as I can tell, the only one multi-tasking--she does not speak directly to me, but stares at an invisible point hovering several feet above the middle of the classroom.
Five minutes later, my cell phone rings. Again, she warns: Anyone with a cell phone will be expelled and not receive credit. Again, she doesn't look at me.
It's at this point that JoAnn completely departs from seat belts to address other issues, from speeding, to reckless driving, to drunk driving, to organ donors, to infant child seats, to the taxpayer's responsibility to not take advantage of the health care system, to her alcoholic Vietnam Vet husband. It is a moral ambush.
"Don't get me wrong, there's freedom at my house," JoAnn tells us. "If my teenage daughter wants to dye her hair green or something, that's fine." It is not clear whether she really has a rebellious punk daughter, or if we are in some netherzone of fiction. "But if you want to go out, young lady, without a helmet " JoAnn stops mid-sentence and begins shaking her head. Holding up her fingers, she counts off, "biking, skateboarding, snowboarding." She pauses, and then adds with an air of finality, "Not without a helmet, young lady!"
HE NO LONGER HAS A RECTUM
The class is dead silent. It's remarkable that 300 people can sit so still, like deer in headlights. No paper rustling. No murmuring.
I recall that in high school, I had a friend who adopted a morbid fear of driving after he went headfirst through his windshield. After that, every time he drove, he always wore a San Diego Charger football helmet with a yellow lightning bolt shooting across the sides. Thinking about this image, I swallow a laugh. I know that any disruption will be my third strike.
Without missing a beat, JoAnn segues into her next story. Her voice takes the exit ramp to hysteria. On the screen, there is a picture of a shiny new pickup truck sitting proudly in a suburban driveway. After graduating from high school, JoAnn tells us, Brandon and some friends went up into the woods for the weekend. "Parents, when they tell you they are going out to the woods " she stops. Shakes her head.
While driving back, apparently drunk, Brandon lost control of his pick-up. One of the passengers was killed and Brandon's insides were scrambled. JoAnn explains that he no longer has a rectum and, in minute detail, describes how his poop sometimes just spills out, and that he no longer has control of his farting.
"Under Measure 11," JoAnn mentions, as a coup de grace, "he serving six years for manslaughter."
She shows another slide. This time, a picture taken on one of Portland's bridges. With smudged red and white lights, the city skyline is blurred. In the foreground, two corpses covered by blankets. JoAnn warns that this driver, too, is serving time in prison for manslaughter. Like a lesson delivered by a high school counselor or teetotaler--heavier on personal conviction than logic--it is a quick jump from cigarettes to heroin or, in this instance, from not buckling up to six years in the Big House.
At this point, JoAnn completely departs from simple physics lessons about what happens when you don't buckle up. She has now commandeered the pulpit as an opportunity to map out her moral dividing lines in an utterly confused and misguided world. I begin to feel a claustrophobia I haven't felt since my freshman year of high school.
Steamrolling through stories now, JoAnn tells how her cousin, or uncle, or some relative rolled his pick-up truck a few years back, killing his girlfriend in the process. "He was drunk," JoAnn assures us. Apparently, he didn't learn his lesson and went on to crash a second truck, killing yet another girlfriend. At least, according to JoAnn.
"He doesn't dare come to my house now," she informs us with acidic certainty. "He knows I'll call the cops if he has a drop of beer."
There is a momentary silence before someone meekly asks, "Why isn't he in jail?" It is a woman's voice, she sounds young. It is the first question asked all night.
There is a pause, almost imperceptible, unless you've scrutinized JoAnn's habits as closely as I have for the past one hundred minutes. Regaining her control, JoAnn retorts, "Well, he is now."
BUCKLE UP... FOR LIFE
Checking my watch, I notice I've endured almost two hours. The class is coming to a close. But the Seat Belt Lady has a few more surprises up her sleeve. The next slide: A forehead with a bloody flap of skin pulled back. The laceration looks oddly like the big red lips of a Hollywood starlet. I cock my head and stare at the photo. The man is lying still, his eyes are closed like he is sleeping peacefully, unaware that some foreign pair of jumbo lips have overtaken his forehead. It is difficult to align this photo with reality.
JoAnn makes her point about this unfortunate person by aping a conversation that allegedly took place between herself and the victim. "You weren't wearing your seat belt, were you?" she asks. "No, I wasn't," she says in his voice. "How did you know?"
Oh, she knows. The Seat Belt Lady always knows.