Learning About Work Ethic From My High School Driving Instructor

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Bob of the Easy Method Driving School has spent his entire life teaching his students how to drive -- and there's nothing he loves to do more

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The car horn is like a lovely word defiled. It was never meant to be profane. It was never meant to be deployed only in a rage or in a hurry by our dumb and vulgar selves. It's just a signal. A safe driver, if she were driving safely, would honk her horn -- quick taps -- maybe once an hour: when a schoolchild or squirrel threatened to enter the road; when she approached a man pulling out of his driveway but couldn't make eye contact; when lingering for too long, perhaps because of traffic, in another car's blind spot.

I know this because Bob told me eight years ago. Bob taught me how to drive: Before I could get my license I was required by law to enroll in a behind-the-wheel driver training program and people said his was the best.

At an appointed time he picked me up in a modest sedan with one of those giant pizza-delivery prisms on the roof that broadcast both the name of his driving school and my dangerous incompetence. We had three sessions of two hours each. I drove around the suburbs and Bob talked nonstop the whole time about the micromechanics of driving and traffic accidents and the role of body language at intersections and the true purpose of the highway shoulder and the way you're supposed to ease the wheel back, after a sharp turn, with a "controlled slip." Then he took me to the DMV for the practical test and I passed.

All of Bob's students passed. For the hardest part, the parallel parking, he had a trick. On his car's back right window he stuck a New Jersey Devils decal. When it came time to parallel park, you were to pull up until the back of the decal was aligned with the parking spot's front left cone. You turned the wheel clockwise as far as it could go, looked out the back windshield, and stopped exactly when another sticker -- I forget what that one was -- was aligned with the back right cone. Finally you spun the wheel fully counterclockwise, eased back, and straightened out.

When they gave me my license I left in a hurry, eager as I was to join the legions of bad New Jersey drivers. I thanked Bob. Then I did what everybody who's ever had a driving instructor has done: I forgot about him.

* * *

There is a guy who works the register at the pharmacy across the street who regularly makes my day. He doesn't do anything spectacular -- he's just good at his job. He fluently handles cards and cash; he offers you the pen ready to sign, and makes sure your receipt doesn't curl up; he has memorized the prices of things so that you don't have to wait when a barcode is missing. And he's pleasant in a real way, not like a waitress paid to be bubbly, but like a friend in high spirits. When he says "take care" the words are inflected with humanity.

It reminds me of a flight attendant I once saw and this maneuver he had developed, where right before he scooped ice into a passenger's cup, he'd tilt his hand just so, steep enough that the liquid condensation would roll back into the ice box, but not so steep for the cubes themselves to fall. That way there wouldn't be any extra water along with the ice, and the passenger could enjoy her cold soda at full strength.

Why are these little moments of care so delightful? Because they stand out against a backdrop of listless dissatisfaction. Take the staff at my local grocery store. In a typical visit someone will fumble your credit card; forget what's in stock or where it goes; enter the wrong price; or ignore the basics of bagging. When they say "good night" it's on behalf of the store, not themselves, and they clearly don't give a damn.

On the one hand you sympathize. Bagging groceries is boring; it doesn't pay well; the customers are unpleasantly demanding. That's a brutal trio. It's also fairly common. If bitter torpor seems like the default human operating mode out there in the workaday world, may it not just be that a lot of people have jobs they don't like, jobs they can't like? Who can blame them for that?

Then I think of the flight attendant and the pharmacy, and a small handful of my friends and colleagues, and I remember that there is such a thing as a work ethic and that the people who have it seem to have it all the time.

It's hard to say "work ethic" without sounding like an asshole. But I think it's worth getting a grip on what it means. It seems to me a bit opaque, perhaps like one of those words -- "skyscraper" or "doughnut," say -- which we are so used to seeing as compound wholes that we forget the components. The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter would call them "tightly bonded semantic chunks," like "pieces of wax that have melted together in the bright sunlight."

"Work ethic" seems like one of those chunks. It elicits a halo of simple images: a man hunched over a desk, staying late, furrowing his brow. The "work" part dominates. One forgets the word "ethic" is in there.

But as Thomas Crocker, an associate professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, reminds us, doing a good job, or not doing it, is very much a moral question. Here he quotes Matthew Crawford on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

Here is the paradox. On the one hand, to be a good mechanic seems to require personal commitment: I am a mechanic. On the other hand, what it means to be a good mechanic is that you have a keen sense that you answer to something that is the opposite of personal or idiosyncratic; something universal. ...

Pirsig's mechanic is, in the original sense of the term, an idiot. Indeed, he exemplifies the truth about idiocy, which is that it is at once an ethical and a cognitive failure. The Greek idios means "private," and an idiotes means a private person, as opposed to a person in their public role -- for example, that of a motorcycle mechanic. Pirsig's mechanic is idiotic because he fails to grasp his public role, which entails, or should, a relation of active concern to others, and to the machine. He is not involved. It is not his problem. Because he is an idiot.

Of course most people are not car mechanics or airline pilots. Most people have jobs where being a "moral idiot," as Crocker puts it, won't kill anyone. Should we really demand that the guy who checks ticket stubs at the movie theater hones his craft?

Well, yes. No job is too low to not warrant care, because no job exists in isolation. Carelessness ripples. It adds friction to the working of the world. To phone it in or run out the clock, regardless of how alone and impotent you might feel in your work, is to commit an especially tragic -- for being so preventable -- brand of public sin.

* * *

A month or two ago I was driving back to Manhattan with three friends in a borrowed minivan that had just over 120,000 miles on it. We were in the middle lane making a loping left turn on the highway. It was raining hard; I had the wipers at their fastest setting. A car crept up from the right to pass.

After enough uneventful driving you get the feeling that there is a protective envelope around your car. You forget that you are maneuvering a ton of steel and carbon fiber and moving faster than anything alive on Earth had moved in its first few billion years, in lanes just a few feet on either side.

It helps not to be at ease in that situation. It helps to be afraid, even -- if only so that when the car on your right makes a quick dash toward your lane your hand is already on the horn and your foot's already on the brake, and you've scanned your mirrors and know your outs. You honk and veer gently leftward. The other car retreats. You return home safely.

How often this sort of thing has happened, this thing where a tiny moment on the road has brought me to the edge of infinite doom and a dormant instinct brings me back. The difference between this last time and all the others is that for once I remembered where half those instincts came from. I remembered Bob.

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James Somers is a writer and programmer based in New York. He works at Rap Genius. His personal site is jsomers.net.

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