Driving in the slow lane


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My college job was working as a rental car agent at the Colorado Springs Airport. I was the poor intern the manager posted under the bright green sign when we ran out of vehicles and still had reservations to fill.

Jet lagged people would point and scream at me across the desk while my manager hid in the back office, peeking out through the window blinds. There’s not much you can do when you have a line of customers and no keys to hand out — I couldn’t build a car from office scraps. But after the first week I learned how to handle it. I disappeared within myself, smiling in the little corner of my mind while angry customers blew my hair back.

As many as one hundred people per day rented cars from the airport location, and many of them would return for their departing flight and toss the keys at me and tell me how awful the drivers of Colorado Springs were. One kind lady offered an explanation for our no-good awful driving, “I think it is because of the altitude. The drivers here don’t get enough oxygen.” I’d smile and thank them for bringing it to my attention, and tell them I would try harder the next time.

I learned to drive in Colorado Springs; lurching about the streets in a car with manual steering, making the wild left around the General Palmer statue downtown, whirling the steering wheel with violent movements to get around that block of concrete. I had a 1972 Mercury Comet, God rest her fiery soul, a zippy little classic that sat in black-and-white in the thrifty pages one day, and in a puddle of its own oil and fluids in my dad’s driveway the next.

It was listed at $850, but the owner let it go for $500. Had I been an experienced negotiator I might have made a profit that day. It wasn’t too awful dangerous — it had a mirror on one side. The visors shook loose and blocked my view every time I revved the engine, and there were holes rusted in the floor forcing me to lift my feet up when going over puddles. The engine light came on often, but a good jostling of the steering column could switch it off for days at a time. And the springs were so sensitive that a small bounce would send even a heavy driver to bump his head.

That Mercury was what I sprinted out the front door to every morning from high school to college, anxious to get on the road, where it was just me and the choking roar of that 302 engine. I wouldn’t have heard the radio even if it had one, speeding around curves and switching lanes often. I’d collect speeding tickets until I ran out of money and the threat of having my mom drop me off every day for college classes became a real thing. When the heat became too much, I switched my commute to the back roads where the cops couldn’t hide. (You’d see the front of their cruisers sticking out of the side alleys far in advance.)

Now, I’m a dad, and I drive at the sensible pace posted on the speed limit signs. I brake three hundred yards before traffic lights and I come to a full stop at stop signs.

I still see myself in young drivers. I know how little goes through their minds as they zip along in their battered cars, low to the ground with different colored doors and coffee can tailpipes. Drivers with dents in their panels often drive in a manner that demonstrates how they got them. Bad young drivers grow up to be bad old drivers.

But having a baby in the backseat makes you a defensive driver; I avoid high schools and put “Baby On Board” stickers on every panel of my car. I drive in a predictable style and use my blinkers.

I’ve driven in large cities — Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and El Paso — where people were poking along the way I do these days. I realize now that I was the virus in the veins. When you live among the chaos, it’s not such a wild jungle, you even learn to adopt its behaviors. It’s only when you leave the colony that you realize you are nude.

Pico spent his childhood years in the Springs. Now, as a father, he's seeing the city (and life) in a different light. Follow him on twitter at @DavidXPico.

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