April 29, 2018: This was supposed to be the newsletter in which we celebrated Ben’s completion of his driving test, the end of his arduous road to becoming a fully licensed driver on the mean streets of the East Bay. Life doesn’t always go as planned, however, and so this month’s tale will be about the journey rather than the destination.
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As you likely already know, nothing has been easy for Ben during this saga. He took his driver education class during his senior year of high school, then briefly had his learner permit in 2012 before it expired without him having been behind the wheel more than twice — a couple of practice sessions around a parking lot. It wasn’t until last August, after nearly a dozen failed attempts to pass the written test again, that he successfully regained his permit and we made a concerted effort to get him some street time.
That effort began with him signing on with a local driving school in September. He purchased the three-lesson program, the attraction being that no vehicle was required and the instructor would pick him up right at our front door. Because he had never been out on the street, we all thought it would be best for him to get his first taste of it from a professional instructor who could instill proper methods from the beginning, then we would take it from there once he had learned the basics. That didn’t go so well, however. Ben and the instructor didn’t really connect, and of the two-hour lesson Ben spent barely 20 minutes of actual driving, after which the instructor told him to practice for a month before taking his second lesson. At that point Ben vowed never to return for the remaining two lessons he had already paid for. Sigh.
It fell to us to take over where formal instruction had failed, and so Ben began working with Glenn at the ever faithful Dad’s Driving School.
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HE INSTRUCTORS AT Dad’s Driving School aren’t paid well for what they do; in fact, there is only one and he works for free. Like the pros, Dad’s provides a vehicle for the student: in this case, a tired 2001 Toyota Corolla with balding tires, shaky brakes and a persistent check-engine light. Yeah, you get what you pay for at Dad’s.
Glenn and Ben started going out for occasional drives in October, beginning with basic operations in the parking lot of the Antioch Marina and then progressing to short trips around our neighborhood so Ben could get the hang of handling the car, turning and braking. When he seemed ready, they moved up to driving on the main streets and then finally the freeway. Ben handled the transitions well. Despite the occasional mistakes caused by lack of experience, his confidence level steadily improved through the winter. His big moment came when he drove to Locke from home and back during February on the winding Delta Highway 160. After that, Glenn suggested the time was right to attempt the driving test. Ben agreed, and so they made an appointment for April 25 at the Pittsburg DMV.
With a deadline now in place the clock began ticking on how to get Ben prepared for the exam and get the car into acceptable shape. This is where the disadvantages of Dad’s Driving School became painfully obvious. One of the benefits of the pro driving instruction plan that Ben had purchased was that on the third lesson they would pick you up and take you to the DMV for the test in their late model vehicle. No need to worry about whether all its parts functioned correctly. Not so at Dad’s, where the shopping list for repair parts was already long and seemed to be growing at the same rate as Ben’s experience level.
It started with the simple things. With winter rains on the way, the wiper blades were the first to get an upgrade, along with the addition of some washer fluid to replenish the bone dry reservoir. The left rear brake light had gone dark, so Glenn swiped one from Roni’s old 1998 Corolla — to be referred to from now on as the “partsmobile.” It was after that repair was completed that he found the parking lamp in the same location was also dead, so he stole that piece off the other car as well. And it was just after Christmas, with the car having been idle for a couple of weeks, that Ben and Glenn went to go on a drive and discovered the car wouldn’t start at all; the battery had died. We had fortunately already purchased a new battery for Roni’s old car, thinking that would be the one we’d eventually be refurbishing for Ben, so Glenn just popped it out like a heart surgeon and transplanted it into his vehicle. The repair projects became more difficult after that.
To pass the DMV inspection, the test vehicle must have operable door handles. This would seem a no-brainer for any new car, but in Glenn’s 17-year-old Corolla it was an issue. Toyota may be famous for its overall build quality, but its notorious reliance on plastic interior parts is a weakness. Glenn had already replaced the inside handle on the driver’s side door four times, and each replacement weakened the rod connecting to the latch, to the point where suddenly the door could no longer be opened from inside. It was inconvenient but workable to open the door from the outside by reaching through the window — or as they did things at Dad’s Driving School, have the passenger walk around to let the driver out. Not an option for the DMV test.
This was one of the most dreaded repair tasks because of the cost of obtaining a replacement latch — anywhere from $200-$350 in new condition — and its inaccessible location that requires disassembling the interior door panel, part of the window track, and snaking the latch through a hole at the bottom of the door.
Cheaper parts can be found on eBay or at the junkyard, but that doesn’t avoid the labor of having to swap them out or in. Glenn had tried once before to swipe a door latch off Roni’s partsmobile, only to discover that the two years aren’t compatible. He thought perhaps if he swapped the front latch with one from his car’s rear door that they might be the same.
And so he deployed his collection of tools and opened up both doors one sunny April afternoon with the goal of swapping the latches, only to discover there were no useful tutorials online and that he couldn’t figure out how to fully disassemble either door. In desperation he resorted to Plan B, which was simply to bend the connecting rod in the hope that shortening it would give it more torque to open the latch. It took some finesse and a strong set of pliers, but fortunately the gambit succeeded and the door handle was functional once more.
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HERE WAS LITTLE time to enjoy the door handle victory, however, as there was less than a week to go before Ben’s test. It was time to address brakes and tires. Considering that he never took a day of auto shop class in high school, Glenn has become quite the backyard mechanic in recent years, repairing everything from engine parts to changing his own oil. With a few good YouTube videos on the subject, he was very confident that he could also change his own brakes.
It wasn’t that the existing brakes were worthless, but somewhere through the months of replacing parts and driving lessons with Ben, Glenn was coming to the realization that the car Ben would eventually inherit would be this one, not Roni’s partsmobile. Glenn wanted it to be as reliable as possible. So instead of going the easy route of simply replacing the front brake pads, Glenn decided to go all in on new front rotors as well as new drums and shoes for the rear. Such a job at a brake shop would probably run upwards of $500. Glenn purchased all the parts for around $250.
Ben and Glenn went out for one of their driving sessions the morning of April 21, and by that afternoon Glenn had the car up on jack stands with the front wheels off. We don’t live in snow country where they salt the roads and brakes become heavily corroded or rust-welded to the wheel hubs, so the disassembly job went much easier than expected. The only hitch was that Glenn had to run out to AutoZone in the middle of the project to purchase a brake piston clamp that he hadn’t realized he needed. What would have been a 20-minute job for a seasoned pro (with the proper tools on hand) took about four hours for Glenn to complete, but by the end of the afternoon he had successfully installed new front disc brakes. Given the learning curve, however, he decided to delay the rear drums until after Ben’s test.
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EXT UP WAS tires, and for that Glenn left the labor to the experts. Because it had been many years since we’d bought a complete set of four tires for either of our cars, we had amassed a collection of nine mismatched brands in various states of reliability. The best of those were installed on the 2001 Corolla, the worst on the partsmobile. When we thought it was Roni’s old car we would be restoring for Ben, Glenn swapped the ugliest tires to that vehicle with the intention of having them all replaced at once. Now not wanting to part with the “good” tires, he had this idea that he would take those bad tires off the old car and drop them off at a tire shop to have the new treads mounted, then install them later himself when he did the brakes.
But because he did the brakes first and didn’t want to mess with the tires a second time, he swapped the crappy tires back onto his car and elected to leave his vehicle with the tire shop for the sake of convenience. He settled on America’s Tire in Brentwood, where he found a complete set of four touring tires installed for $241. He made an appointment for 3 p.m. on Monday, April 23. It turned out that having an appointment was a good thing, because there was a line of at least 10 other cars when he arrived, and he got to vault to the front of the queue. The installation took less than 45 minutes and the customer experience was excellent.
With the four new tires and front brakes, the car seemed to handle much better than before. Ben agreed that the ride was much smoother. Any advantage we could give him heading into the driving test was worth the expense, or so we hoped.
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EGARDLESS OF THE car’s readiness and the many hours of practice time we’d put in, Ben had plenty of jitters leading up to his exam. Who could blame him? His experience with driving had been nothing but difficult and disappointing so far. We just hoped he would manage to ace his test so that the frustration of dealing with the DMV would finally be done.
But his confidence had been rising in the days leading up to the test, and we’d both given him plenty of pep talks. He wasn’t talking about if he would receive his license, but when. It was encouraging to hear him think that way and to vocalize it. If you believe in yourself, others will believe in you too. Glenn, although recognizing that Ben still had some weak areas he needed more work on, was confident that he was familiar enough with the basics to get him through the exam… if he didn’t crack under pressure.
That has always been a difficult thing for Ben. He can learn concepts, but he doesn’t often test well. The thought of practicing with a stranger in the car was difficult enough, hence the need for Dad’s Driving School. What would happen when he was sitting across from a DMV examiner he’d never met before?
Ben’s April 25 test was scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Pittsburg DMV. We expected the place to be crowded — it always is — but on this afternoon the line stretched out the door and down two sides of the building. It looked more like a ride at Disneyland. Ben asked the security guard at the door if there was a separate line for appointments, and thankfully there was. He eventually worked his way over to the counter for the driving tests where he got checked in and was instructed to drive the car around to the back of the building and wait in line.
Glenn waited in the car with him as 1 p.m. came and went and there was no sign of a DMV examiner. Ben was second in line behind a kid in a Toyota Tacoma. The line grew progressively longer as 1 p.m. became 1:20, then 1:40. Finally two men with clipboards showed up and started processing the line. Visitors aren’t permitted to be in the car during the exam, so Glenn went inside the DMV to wait anxiously. The examiner walked through Ben’s knowledge of hand signals and vehicle safety equipment before the drive began at 1:50 p.m. It was a very short ride.
It was about 10 minutes later when Glenn looked up to see the kid in the Tacoma who had been ahead of them, at the license counter with his dad and a huge grin on his face. He’d passed. That meant Ben should be right behind him soon. Glenn got up and peeked out the door at the spot where cars park at the end of the exam and saw his Corolla sitting there, but no one was getting out. That didn’t seem like a good sign. His fear was confirmed a moment later when a crestfallen Ben emerged and sulked across the parking lot. “Come on, let’s just go home,” he said when he met Glenn at the door and handed over the key.
For all the practice drives they’d taken, for all the pointers that had been given about remembering to signal and being alert for stop signs and maintaining lane position, for all the fretting over the readiness of the car to pass the DMV inspection, then thing that did Ben in on his first driving exam was something as simple as leaving the parking lot. Actually, he never got to. The car was stopped at the exit waiting to make a right turn onto busy Buchanan Road. Ben let two cars pass before attempting to enter the street ahead of a third vehicle. He thought he had plenty of distance and time to make the turn safely. The examiner didn’t, and failed Ben on the spot. He had Ben drive around the corner and back to the parking lot, test over before it had barely begun.
There are many ways to fail a test, but we all were in agreement that the way Ben had failed his was one of the most demoralizing possible. He never had a chance to show what he knew because he got tripped up on the very first thing he had to attempt. It would make it all the more difficult to know what he needed to prepare for on his next exam. Not that he was eager to schedule one. He was quick to beat himself up for his failure and convinced he would never get his license. But after taking some time to calm down and reflect on the situation, he took our advice to give it another go and scheduled another appointment in Pittsburg for May 30. We are very proud of him for having the courage to give it another try.
We’ve got five weeks to prepare for this one, so Dad’s Driving School will be out on the roads for the next month on its never-ending mission to boost skills and confidence as we strive to bring a happy ending to Ben’s license odyssey.
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ONI HAS BEEN busy with her own adventures these past several months, as she tackles an ever increasing workload with her involvement at Ironhouse Sanitary District. Recently she received the highest compliment for her efforts when she was named Outreach Coordinator of the Year for the entire state by the California Water Environment Association, or CWEA. One of the outreach projects she worked on — a drop-off station for customers to dispose of household kitchen grease — also received a second place award. And the newsletter that we design and edit for the district, the “Ironhouse Insider,” was also named best in the state. This was the second year in a row that the newsletter was a finalist for the statewide honor, but its first win.
The three awards were among five that ISD won at the state level of competition this spring, including also being named Plant of the Year among small sanitary agencies. One of the district’s department heads got a second place award in the category of Supervisor of the Year. Roni was instrumental in preparing the applications for all the winning entries, which kept her busy for weeks during the winter leading up to the CWEA Bay Area regional competition, the first step to making it to the state finals.
With so many accolades to be celebrated we thought it only fitting that she attend the state CWEA awards banquet on April 20 in Sacramento. Glenn wanted to come too, but after considering the cost for the banquet and conference tickets we decided it would be cheaper for us to grab our own fancy meal to celebrate afterward. We’re nonetheless all extremely proud of Roni and glad she got to enjoy her 15 minutes of fame.
Attending the awards lunch was just one activity on a very busy schedule for her that week. She was also in the middle of publishing a financial audit report for the district, juggling that with coordinating an ISD booth during Oakley Science Week and leading a series of school tours of the water treatment plant for about 450 sixth-graders. Needless to say, she is a bit exhausted as the end of the month approaches.
Glenn, meanwhile, has been settling into new routines nearly 10 months since leaving the news business — Dad’s Driving School notwithstanding. With things settling down on the home improvement front and car repairs mostly taken care of, he has returned to his writing projects with renewed determination. A major hurdle for him has been finding a quiet place and time to write each day. The Writing Sanctuary had been dormant for months because it is adjacent to Ben’s bedroom, which tends to get noisy when he’s home or has friends over. It also lacked a working computer with a monitor large enough for his aging eyes to view comfortably.
Glenn solved the computer issue by hooking up a bluetooth mouse, wired keyboard and spare external monitor to his Chromebook. The setup provides him a convenient dock station for those days when he wants to work in the back room, and he can easily disconnect the laptop to take it elsewhere if things get too noisy or he just needs a change of scenery — like the bedroom, which until recently had been his preferred writing space.
Glenn has also been trying to catch up with spring weeding. The front yard landscaping has helped a lot with the weed situation there, but it does nothing for the backyard which is still a carpet of grass, wildflowers and stickers. Every two weeks he tries to fill up our green waste container in time for the garbage run, just to make sure it’s empty for another load. At this rate he’ll still be weeding come November.
Which reminds us, time to take out the green waste bin for tomorrow’s pickup. See you next month.