Sensible Cars for Santa Ynez
Bronwyn Mauldin





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“Councilman Hargrove, how do you vote?”


And with that the Santa Ynez City Council pounded the final nail into the coffin containing the past three years of Sandy Weaver’s life. Three years of meetings, petitions, letters to the editor, fundraisers and public hearings. Three years of analyzing, explaining, debating, downright cajoling and wheedling when the situation called for it. And for what? Four to three against when the final votes were tallied.

Someone behind her patted Sandy’s shoulder as she stood up and murmured consoling words about next year. Next year? No, Sandy heard a voice inside her head say. No more years. Not like this one. Not like the last three. On her left, Eddie Contreras, immediate past president of Sensible Cars for Santa Ynez, beamed his best snake oil grin and spoke to her in a low, gravelly voice, barely moving his lips. “Smile for the cameras, Sandy.”

Despite herself, Sandy almost laughed, and for a moment her grin felt genuine. But it gave way to something more wooden when she recognized the first photographer to approach, a greasy, disheveled man from the local weekly paper whose developer owner would love nothing more than to plaster the front page with full-color photos of the two founders of SCSY – the rag referred to it as “Scuzzy” – cheeks streaked with tears or lips and chins distended with rage. She and Eddie wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. As cameras flashed, Sandy peered around the room looking for any of the L.A. Times reporters she knew. At least they’d covered the story fairly and objectively, which is all she had ever wanted.

“Sushi?” she asked Eddie through clenched, smiling teeth, but her eyes were suddenly blinded by the light from a KTLA cameraman.

“How do you feel about the vote?” the cameraman shouted. “Were you surprised at how it came out?” As she always did, Sandy instinctively took a half step back to let Eddie take the question. She’d never been comfortable with being on the front lines – she’d rather be in back getting the work done. And the fact was, Sandy had known how the vote would go, if she’d just been honest with herself. A week ago, everything had been different. The count had been four to three in favor and the City of Santa Ynez was about to ban itself from buying sports utility vehicles for the city fleet. But a week is a long time in the world of local politics.

Sandy was a forty-something algebra and calculus teacher at Santa Ynez High school, hailing originally from conservative Orange County. Eddie was a nearly-retired social sciences teacher who’d gotten his start organizing support in East L.A. for Cesar Chavez’s grape boycott. Sandy and Eddie had been nod-and-smile colleagues until a faculty meeting almost four years ago where teachers were discussing what to do about the recent rash of SUV-related incidents on campus. Three collisions in a single month in the student lot suggested that high school students with fresh drivers’ licenses did not have the skills to handle the enormous vehicles. Then the parent of a student whose Hummer had been towed for taking up more than one space in the overcrowded student lot called, threatening a lawsuit. The faculty discussion devolved into a politico-environmental argument about SUVs, and Sandy and Eddie were among the most vocal on the anti-SUV side.

The two of them continued their conversation over the next several weeks, long after the faculty decided that the safest course of action was none at all. During one of their more spirited discussions Sandy heard herself say, “Well, at the very least, the City of Santa Ynez shouldn’t be buying those things. They’re bad for the environment, and they’re dangerous for both the drivers on the city payroll and for other drivers on the streets. I mean, Santa Ynez might just be a little suburb of L.A., but these streets belong to us, the citizens.”

“You’re right!” Eddie had answered, growing excited. “That’s our tax dollars in their tanks.” Then he suggested establishing a community group to push for an ordinance. An hour later, they had a name for the group: Sensible Cars for Santa Ynez.

In the first year, Eddie organized a formidable group of some hundred and fifty hard core SCSY members, plus a couple thousand who signed their petition in support of the ordinance. Two of the seven city council members – Democrats who were also involved in the local Green Party – signed on in support immediately. Three Republican council members were definite no votes – the aging trust fund baby of a fabulously wealthy family who kept two Cadillac Escalades and a Ford Excursion at his Santa Ynez home; the owner of a local GMC dealership; and an Iranian-American attorney rumored to have ties to the family of the deposed Shah.

In year two SCSY modified its proposed ordinance, allowing the city to buy electric or gas-electric hybrid SUVs, and the third vote had been secured from a conservative Democrat on the council. The score was tied. Then, earlier this year, with strong support from SCSY, Eddie had run for the council seat held by the moderate Republican Hargrove.

Less than one month from election day, with Eddie polling neck and neck with Hargrove, the councilman made a surprise announcement, changing his position to support the SCSY proposal. Then he made a quiet call late one night, and Eddie dropped out of the race. Sandy thought Eddie’s decision imprudent, but she kept her mouth shut. He had years of political experience on her, and he insisted Hargrove could be trusted to keep his word.

As the day approached when the council would vote on their proposal, SCSY could “count to four,” as Sandy had learned to say. Only a thin majority, but it was as good as the count would get. Citizen groups in half a dozen other towns and cities across the country were beginning to introduce similar ordinances of their own, from Berkeley to Cambridge to Raleigh, North Carolina. With sentiment running high, Sandy booked a room for the victory party a week ago at Taiko’s, her favorite Japanese restaurant.

She wasn’t sure now whether it was sunny optimism, or a dogged unwillingness to face the truth that prevented her from canceling the reservation two days ago when she heard the news about Hargrove. A used car dealership had offered Hargrove’s son Trevor a summer job shooting and cataloguing photos for the company website. Sandy had taught Trevor a few years ago when he’d repeated Algebra I. The kid wasn’t bright. When Eddie called her to tell her about Trevor’s new job, they’d both seen the writing on the wall. Hargrove would switch his vote, and the SCSY ordinance would fail.

“Mr. Contreras, what are you going to do now?” The question came in a clipped British accent that Sandy recognized. The L.A. correspondent for The Guardian in London. The international press had taken special interest in the SCSY ordinance. It seemed to symbolize something about America or California for them. Sandy had lost count of the times she’d heard Eddie patiently explain to reporters, “No, not Santa Eye-nez. It’s pronounced Santa Eee-nez.”

“We still want sensible cars for Santa Ynez,” Eddie answered. “The facts have not changed. We still insist that the City of Santa Ynez has no business wasting our tax dollars on SUVs that generate so much smog and are such a danger on the road.”

The reporter thanked Eddie perfunctorily and turned to the victors from the Chamber of Commerce who were slapping each others’ backs and flicking imaginary motes of dust from their suits. Sandy looked down. She was in a suit too. Off the rack, though, its gray wool shiny at the elbows and a little too long in the sleeves. She’d learned over the past three years that elected officials preferred their business interests to appear in tailored opulence and their ordinary citizens in just a hint of hardship. Perhaps for ease of identification in the harried halls of power, she thought.

The overflow crowd that had filled the hearing room was thinning rapidly. As she and Eddie made their way to the doors, shaking hands and sharing condolences with SCSY supporters, Sandy thought of the platters of sushi and bowls of edamame awaiting them at Taiko’s. At least they’d had the sense to go with a no-host bar, she thought ruefully. The crowd tonight would be smaller than expected – the finger-to-the-wind types would be celebrating at the Chamber party – but they would be looking to drown the sorrow of their failure.

“Sushi?” she said to Eddie once more.

“Sushi,” he affirmed, and took her arm companionably.

As much as anything, Sandy loved Santa Ynez because it was one of those rare places in southern California where a person could walk from city hall to her favorite sushi bar. Or her favorite Thai restaurant, pizza joint, coffee shop or bookstore. A suburb of the great Los Angeles megalopolis, Santa Ynez stretched north from the glow of the Aliso Canyon Oil Field. It was old enough to have genuine early 1900s faux Spanish architecture and tile trimmings on public buildings, but with all the amenities required to meet the needs of modern urban life in the twenty-first century, all within a five mile radius.

Sandy and Eddie walked the six blocks in silence. Anything they might say to each other right now would be either empty sloganeering or maudlin self-pity.

Sandy’s husband, Peter, an anesthesiologist at Santa Ynez Hospital, was standing under the blue cotton noren hanging in the restaurant doorway when they arrived. Standing next to him was Juana, Eddie’s wife. Peter enveloped Sandy in a warm, tender embrace. Then he shook Eddie’s hand while Juana said sharply, “Folks have already started arriving.” It was a warning. If you’re going to break down, do it out here, not inside, in front of the people who are depending on you. Sandy thought, not for the first time, that Juana must have been a formidable organizer in the dry, dusty vineyards of central California where she and Eddie first met.

Sandy and Eddie walked through the restaurant, Peter and Juana trailing just behind them. They entered the back room to as much cheering and applause as the small crowd of SCSY supporters could muster. It was mostly a younger crowd that didn’t have children to put to bed. Students from the community college who had put in long hours canvassing door to door and now wanted a free meal in return. A few of their wealthier supporters who, she supposed, wanted to see how their donated money was being spent. Nannies would see to their little angels tonight.

Sandy suddenly felt a pang of guilt to realize she was directing her mental daggers at SCSY members. These were her people. She told herself to put the anger and disappointment aside for now. She would deal with them later.

When the applause died down, Eddie raised his right hand in acknowledgement and straightened his body, making himself a little taller. Sandy took the opportunity to lead Peter into a far corner of the room.

“Thank you, everyone,” Eddie began. “I want to thank you so very much for your long hours, for your donations, for putting your heart and soul into this work. You make me proud to live in Santa Ynez. Thanks to you, I know there is a brighter future for all of us and for the next generation. We started out three years ago to make our little corner of California a better place, and we have set an example that other cities across the country have taken up. We have much to be proud of tonight. All of us, working together.” Thank God they had Eddie, Sandy thought as he paused dramatically. He sounded like a victor, even in defeat.

Eddie continued. “It would be easy, tonight, after what we have seen, to harden our hearts and grow cynical about the democratic process. But tonight is just one night, and this vote is only one vote. For three years I have worked alongside the people of Santa Ynez and I have learned that we live in a world filled with people of good will, and working together we will create a brighter day. If not tonight, then on a future night. If not this cause, then on another cause. Please, un aplauso for all the people in this room and for those who are not with us tonight, a great round of applause for everything you have done. You have earned it!” The cheers that followed sounded heartfelt. Sandy saw more than a few pairs of moist eyes in the room.

Eddie was already working the crowd, shaking hands and thanking people. Sandy dug up a few nuggets of hope from the pit of her stomach and turned on the smile she used when explaining the quadratic equation to her less talented students for the third and fourth time. The first person who moved into her line of sight was Reverend Barbara Donner of Santa Ynez United Church of Christ, whose basement Fellowship Hall had been home to countless SCSY meetings, once the group had outgrown Sandy’s living room.

“Barbara!” Sandy said and held out her hand.

Reverend Donner took her hand and shook it. “We did what we could.”

“Yes, we did,” Sandy answered. “I really have to thank you for all your support for SCSY over the past three years. We couldn’t have done it without you.”

“I still care about this issue deeply,” the minister said, “and I am mad as a hornet about Hargrove’s vote. If I’d known he’d come so cheap, I would have gone to my ATM and put the cash in a brown paper sack!” The two women chuckled, eyes shining with feigned shock.

Peter approached with a glass of beer in each hand. “Plotting the next stage of the revolution, ladies? First stop, Santa Ynez, next stop, the world?” he said, offering the drinks. Sandy looked at him sharply, but he just smiled back amiably. She took one of the beers. Reverend Donner declined the other, explaining that she had an early start the next morning. Then she left.

When she did, a tall Asian woman with short cropped hair approached. “Taiko!” Sandy said, “everything looks great, as always. Thanks.” Taiko’s didn’t offer the classiest sushi in Santa Ynez, but the place had a homey, comfortable feeling about it, and the owners were big SCSY supporters. It would have been a great place to run a victory lap.

Taiko gave Sandy a quick hug and said, “Oh, Sandy. So sorry about the vote. In fact, we’ve decided to give you a fifteen percent discount for tonight.”

“No! We can’t accept.”

Taiko smiled. “Sure you can. This way we make sure you come back to us when it’s time for the real victory party. This is just the warm-up. Anyway, the discount is only on the food. Everyone still has to pay full price for drinks.”

Not that there would be any more SCSY victory parties, Sandy thought. At least not any organized by her. But she wasn’t going to put up much of an argument with Taiko. SCSY had passed the hat at the last meeting to pay for this celebration and came up short, so Sandy had decided to quietly pay the difference. This little discount would go a long way. “Thanks, Taiko,” she said.

As Taiko returned to the kitchen, Sandy surveyed the room. Knots of people clustered like barnacles at the sides of tables holding intent conversations, plates in one hand, glasses in the other. She recognized most of the faces, and could probably put names to at least half of them. The reporter from the L.A. Times had finally shown up, she saw, and was talking to Eddie in the opposite corner. Good. He would say all the right things, as he always had for three years.

Suddenly the sound in the room suddenly dropped a decibel or two. When it did, the sound of a young man’s voice boomed out over the rest. “…take that Hargrove and slow roast him like the pig he is in a blanket of hot coals!” Sandy couldn’t identify the voice, but she sympathized with it. She turned to her husband, eyes bright with an emotion she couldn’t quite name.

“Hey, Peter,” she said, “could you get me another beer?”

“Whoops!” Sandy said as she tripped against a misaligned chunk of sidewalk. Peter caught her by the arm to keep her from falling. She’d had one beer too many tonight, then Taiko had insisted on a few shots of sake at the bar after everyone was gone, while Sandy and Peter were settling up the bill.

“I think I may be drunk,” Sandy said, her voice loud on the quiet residential streets. They had caught the city bus from downtown to their neighborhood and were walking home from the last stop. The night sky was clear and the moon hadn’t risen yet. Here on the cusp between the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and the southern California desert, stars were visible above the black silhouette of the nearby Santa Susana mountains.

“Yes, I think you are.”

“Well, if a fine upstanding American citizen like me can’t get a little loaded on a night like tonight, what is this democracy of ours coming to anyway?”

Peter took her hand and squeezed it. “That’s right, sweetie. God bless America.”

“My goddamned home sweet home,” Sandy said, laughing.

“Shhh,” Peter said. “It’s late. The neighbors.” He guided her onto Cielo Avenue where they lived. As they turned the corner, Sandy froze.

“Hey, Pete. What does that sign say?” Sandy pointed up to a series of municipal street signs bolted to a telephone pole.

“It’s a no parking sign. C’mon, honey. Let’s go home.”

“No, Pete. The one above it. With the picture of a truck behind a big red circle with a slash through it? It says ‘Over three tons.’ I can do the math in my head because I am a certified math teacher. That means no trucks over 6,000 pounds.”

“Okay. Sure.”

“Well?” she asked impatiently.

“Well what?” Peter asked.

“Well, the IRS gives tax breaks to people who buy SUVs that weigh more than 6,000 pounds.”

“Maybe we should get one,” Peter said.

Sandy laughed. Then she hiccupped once. Then again. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Anyway, it’s time for bed.”

The next day at school was rather less painful than Sandy expected. A few of the other teachers had a friendly word for her, a few others were more pitying. Only a couple of them looked at her with their chins turned up at jaunty, self-righteous angles. Even the thrum of her hangover eased off after she fed it potato chips and a bowl of tomato soup at lunch time.

Eddie reported a few dirty looks from some of their more libertarian colleagues over the next few weeks, but the attention died out quickly. The Santa Ynez High School basketball team was doing unexpectedly well this season and interest on campus quickly moved from vote counts to free throw averages.

As basketball season wore on, Sandy found time to clean out the closets in their two story pink stucco house. She could grade homework and tests in the evenings and still have time to catch the latest hit series on HBO, even see an episode twice if it was especially good. One week in March, for the first time in three years, Sandy cooked dinner five nights in a row. When she received the occasional call or e-mail from a SCSY member at loose ends she would tell them that no, there were no meetings or actions planned, but she’d let them know if anything changed.

Life for Sandy, in other words, calmed down. Cooled off. Normalized. Finally, after three years.

The only thing that nagged at her now and then was that sign three blocks away announcing that trucks over 6,000 pounds were prohibited on her street. Did it also apply to SUVs? Like the ones she saw driving up and down her street every day? She began keeping a list on the last page of her grade book, marking down the brands and models of SUVs she saw on Cielo Avenue. She researched and recorded the gross vehicle weight rating of each one.

On a gray, gloomy Sunday afternoon in April, Sandy found herself sitting on their living room sofa, notebook computer in her lap, typing out a “how-to” guide for activists initiating SUV purchasing bans in their own cities. She and Eddie were still getting calls about it. He’d give the big picture, the conceptual view, then send them on to her for the details. Sandy was just inserting an electronic copy of one of their better flyers into the document when she heard the squeal of brakes and the sound of metal crashing into glass. Sandy jumped up from the sofa and ran to the front door.

A tow-headed boy lay splay-legged, face down in the middle of the street beside a dark blue child-sized mountain bike flat on its side. Several feet behind that was a shiny silver SUV. A Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Sandy saw, its front end pressed up hard against the crumpled trunk of her next door neighbor George Fleming’s brand new yellow Honda Civic. Sandy could hear the doors of other houses flying open. Up the street a woman screamed and began running toward the accident. As Sandy stared at the scene, the boy stood up slowly and turned his elbows upward to inspect the bloody scrapes. The running woman fell to her knees in front of the boy. His mother.

Finally unfrozen, Sandy called out, “Do you need an ambulance?”

“Yes, for God’s sake!” the woman cried out.

“Mommy, I’m okay!” the boy answered, his voice pitched with almost equal terror. “He didn’t hit me. I fell down.”

Sandy heard sirens approaching before could find her telephone handset, so she abandoned her search. She picked up her grade book and looked up the Porsche SUV on her list. Then she went back outside to see how she could help. By now a crowd had formed. Several neighbors and a police officer were gathered around the boy and his sobbing mother. George Fleming was engaged in an angry exchange with another police officer and Trevor Hargrove, would-be photographer son of the city councilman. And driver of the SUV, apparently.

She couldn’t stop herself. Sandy marched up to Trevor without shutting the front door behind her. “Do you have any idea what that SUV weighs?” she asked.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Please step back,” the police woman said. She was taking down information in small black lined boxes on a white form.

Sandy turned to her. “Do you know?”

“I didn’t hit the kid!” Trevor said plaintively.

“I’ll speak to you in a moment, ma’am,” the officer said. “I’m taking care of this now.”

“The Cayenne Turbo has a GVWR of 6,790 pounds. Trevor, it is illegal to drive your SUV on this street.”

“Really?” George Fleming asked. He turned to the police woman. “Is that true?”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that, sir. Ma’am,” she turned to Sandy again, squaring her shoulders, “if you don’t step away right now I will arrest you for interfering with a police investigation.”

Sandy suddenly saw herself from the police woman’s point of view. Crazy neighbor in gray sweat pants and a maroon chamois shirt so threadbare that the lining glowed white at her neck. Making incoherent accusations in her bare feet, while a six-year-old boy and his mother screamed and two ruined cars leaked toxic fluids into the street. “Sorry,” she muttered, and walked away.

The next morning, during her free period, Sandy called the Santa Ynez Police Department. They couldn’t tell her anything about the sign posted at the end of Cielo Avenue and suggested she call the L.A. County Department of Public Works. When she finally got through to a live human in the Road Maintenance Division, he turned out to be a low level clerk who had the authority only to take her name and number and promise that “someone will get back to you as soon as possible.” When she asked how soon was soon, he suggested calling CalTrans, the state transportation agency.

CalTrans couldn’t help her, so Sandy called city hall, where she finally found a partial answer in the Office of Planning and Community Development. A transportation specialist there confirmed that under city code it was, in fact, illegal to drive any vehicle over 6,000 pounds on most residential streets in Santa Ynez. In a lot of other California cities too. The ordinance was designed to keep heavy trucks off the roads because of the greater wear and tear they cause.

“Who’s responsible for enforcing the law?” Sandy asked.

The transportation specialist was silent for a moment. “I don’t have a clue. I guess Santa Ynez police?”

After the last bell Sandy headed across campus to Eddie’s classroom. As they walked out to the faculty parking lot together he listened quietly to her story about Trevor Hargrove and the little boy he nearly killed. About the sign at the end of Cielo Avenue and what she’d learned from the city transportation planning specialist. “Do you understand?” she concluded. “We could use this to get SUVs off the streets.”

“I suppose so.” Eddie sounded uncertain, which wasn’t like him. Sandy looked up. They had stopped walking, and were standing next to an enormous, shiny gold Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck.

“Listen, if it’s already illegal to drive these death machines on our streets,” she gestured to the pickup, “then SCSY’s work would just be a matter of enforcement.”

Eddie was fidgeting with his key ring when the truck doors unlocked with a heavy clack, accompanied by a loud honk. He reached for the door and opened it.

“Eddie, what the hell are you doing?”

“I’m getting in my truck and going home,” he answered.

“What about that little Hyundai you always drive?” she asked.

“We traded it in last month. I’ve needed a truck for a long time, but I waited until after the council vote. Thought it would look strange, the head of SCSY buying a big truck like this while we were trying to stop the city from spending money on SUVs.”

“Do you…?” Sandy began, then had to stop because her voice had caught in her throat. “Are you saying you’ve switched sides?”

“Of course not!” Eddie answered, his voice big and booming, his politician’s smile spreading across his face. “City governments should not spend taxpayer dollars on overpriced vehicles that damage the environment and create dangerous traffic risks!”

“But it’s okay if you do?” The words were out of Sandy’s mouth before she could stop them, pushed out by the acid rising from her gut.

Eddie’s smile widened further. “I’m doing lots of work these days on my property in Riverside. Clearing tree stumps and whatnot. Need a big truck for big jobs like that.”

This was why Sandy always insisted that his face appear before the television cameras, not hers. He could sound so convincing, look so authoritative, no matter how bad the situation appeared for SCSY. And for himself, it would seem. “I can’t believe you bought one of these things! It’s got to run three and a half tons at least.”

“At least,” Eddie repeated after her as he pulled himself up into the cab with a grunt. He started the truck, then rolled down the window and turned to her, shaking his head. “Oh, Sandy, you always were a true believer.”

Then he drove away, leaving Sandy to stare, open-mouthed, at his sheep-headed brake lights.

That night Sandy was on the phone calling SCSY members. “Did you know that it’s illegal to drive SUVs over 6,000 pounds on most residential streets in Santa Ynez?” she asked them one by one. “We need to do something about it.” While she had expected a little resistance from people who were disappointed with the council vote six months ago, she didn’t expect wholesale dismissal of her discovery on principle. Even worse, at least eight of the seventeen people she called that night admitted to her – some hesitating with shame, others blustering defiance – that they owned SUVs themselves. Others simply didn’t see the point.

“What are we supposed to do about it? That’s a problem for the police.”

“If it’s already the law, then it’s not like we can get an ordinance passed at city council to fix it.”

“Of course the police can’t spend all their time stopping law-abiding citizens from driving SUVs down the street. They’re busy with more important things, like stopping crime.”

“I can’t judge what my neighbors choose to drive.”

“What do you want we should do, Sandy? Stand in the middle of the road and stop SUVs as they drive up the street?”

Sandy’s ears perked up when Angela Fleming, said that. “We could,” she answered. Angela and her husband George owned the yellow Honda that had been totaled by Trevor Hargrove and his SUV.

“Could what?” Angela asked.

“Block SUVs from driving up Cielo Avenue.”

“Sandy! I was joking. That would be completely loco.”

“Not if we did it together,” Sandy insisted.

“Who? You and me and what army?”

Sandy paraphrased a line she’d heard Eddie say many times over the past three years. “If you’re just one person out there, sure they’ll think you’re a nut. But when there are two or more, then it’s a movement.”

“Listen, Sandy,” Angela said, “I’m an environmentalist, more or less, but I’ve never been one for protests and that sort of thing.”

Sandy laughed uncomfortably and tried to make a joke. “Yes, we’re just armchair enviros here in the suburban wasteland.”

“Seriously, Sandy. I suppose I saw your flyers and posters up around town, about all the air pollution SUVs generate and about how dependence on oil is bad for, what’s that word you use? Geo-something-or-other.”

“Geopolitics?” Sandy asked.

“Right! Geopolitics. What’s that got to do with me? I got interested in SCSY when a kid came to my door with a petition, talking all about how expensive those SUVs are, how much it costs to insure them, about the cost of repairing roads damaged by those big vehicles. He showed me pie charts of how much the city gets in tax dollars and how they spend it, and that’s when I got it. Taxes are bad enough, and I don’t want them going up so the city can buy expensive toys when they could buy something sensible instead. That’s when I signed the petition and came on board.”

“But don’t you want our neighborhood to be safe and healthy?” Sandy asked. “Isn’t that important to you too?”

“Of course it is! I’m just not interested in making a fool of myself in front of all my neighbors. Well, I might do it if I thought it would lower my taxes!” Angela’s laugh made a thin, tinny sound across the telephone lines. “But you should think about it carefully. You’re a public high school teacher. The school board doesn’t take kindly to lunatics in the classroom.”

The next afternoon, Sandy stopped by an office supply store on her way home from work and bought several sheets of poster board and packet of thick, wide markers. As she drove home, Sandy thought about what Angela Fleming had said the night before. What about the lunatics on City Council? Or the lunatics who designed gas-guzzling death machines and called them cars?

When Peter arrived home from work, he found her in the middle of their kitchen floor surrounded by half a dozen poster board signs stapled to the stakes that had once sported Eddie’s campaign yard signs. The red sheet she had cut into an octagon and written STOP on it in bright yellow letters six inches tall. Under the four letters was a much smaller in the name of love in pink. On a white sheet of poster board she had written IT IS ILLEGAL TO DRIVE YOUR SUV ON THIS STREET. A yellow sheet of poster board read WE ARE SIMPLY ENFORCING THE LAW – S.Y.C.C. 468.8(c).

“Uh, hi, sweetie,” Peter said. “What’s for dinner?”

Startled, Sandy jumped up and looked at the clock. “Oh! Sorry. I must have lost track of time.” She opened the refrigerator. It took her several moments to realize she should be looking for something to cook.

Behind her, Peter asked, “What exactly is S.Y.C.C. four-sixty-eight point eight?”

Sandy turned and answered brightly, “Santa Ynez City Code. That’s the ordinance that makes it illegal to drive SUVs on Cielo Avenue and other residential streets. I looked it up.”

“Did you?”

“Sure did.”

There was a moment of silence while they looked at each other. “Honey,” Peter said, pointing to her belly, “what’s that thing you’re wearing?”

Sandy looked down at her torso. At the bottom of a box of childhood mementos in her bedroom closet she had found her old fluorescent orange crossing guard belt from elementary school, with the thin metal badge still pinned to it. The plastic was cracked in places and not as supple as it once had been, but it held together as she wrapped it around her body. It took a few minutes to remember the configuration. This part went around her waist – well, the bottom of her ribcage now – and the part with the tin badge across her chest and over her left shoulder.

“Uh, sweetie?” Peter started again, this time a little more tentatively, “what are you up to?”

Sandy smiled. “I’m going to stop the motherfuckers from driving their SUVs on my street.”

Peter frowned. “Did Eddie put you up to this?”

Sandy’s face went red with rage. “Eddie and SCSY can go to hell.” Except this time she said “scuzzy.”

“What exactly do you plan to do?” The volume of Peter’s voice was beginning to rise.

“I’m going to stand next to that sign on the corner and stop anybody who tries to drive past it in an SUV. Turn them around and send them back the way they came.”

“Right now?”

“No. Tomorrow.”

“You have to work tomorrow.”

“I’ve called in sick,” Sandy said.

Peter shook his head. “That’s not smart. You don’t have a lot of sick days left, not after all the time you’ve taken off for SCSY.” He said the letters one by one, the way Sandy always did. Used to.

Sandy shrugged. “So what? I’ve got the days off. I’m taking them. I’ll be up bright and early to catch the morning commuters.”

“You mean our neighbors?” Peter’s voice grew tight with alarm.

“If they drive SUVs, then, yes, our neighbors.”

Peter leaned in a little more closely, his voice rising. “Who else will be there? Whose idea is this?”

“Nobody. It’s my idea and I’m going out there all on my own. I don’t care if nobody helps me at all.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sandy, stop it right now! You can’t do this! It’s crazy! You’re going to make a fool of yourself out there.”

“I don’t care.” She was well past caring.

“Then think about me,” Peter shouted. “You’re going to make me look like an idiot.”

“No,” Sandy answered. “I’ll be there. You won’t. Our neighbors can tell the difference between us.”

“Goddamn it, Sandy, I put up with this ‘scuzzy’ shit for three years, and I thought we were finally done with it. What the hell has gotten into you?”

Sandy cocked her head to the side a little and looked at Peter more closely. “Yes, it seems that I’m only seeing the truth now. For three years I busted my ass, and it turns out it was for somebody else’s cause. All along I thought SCSY was about creating a safer, cleaner world, but I let people convince me that such lofty ideals are corny and naive. So I told myself that what I think isn’t important. What’s important is increasing SCSY membership and getting that ordinance through. I kept my mouth shut and believed it was for the greater good. I lied to Eddie and everyone else but mostly I lied to myself. I even told them that my beloved husband Peter is behind me one hundred percent. But I was fooling myself. I compromised on the things that were important to me, and in the end I have nothing to show for it. Not even my self-respect. So I’m going out tomorrow morning to do what I should have been doing all along. I’m going to stand my ground, and to hell with anyone who tries to tell me otherwise.”

“No you are not!” Peter shouted.

“Yes,” she said calmly. “I am.”

Peter picked up his briefcase, stormed out the back door and slammed it. Then he drove away, leaving Sandy trembling slightly by the kitchen sink. Rattled, but undeterred.

Sandy was awake a little before six the next morning. As the darkness of the bedroom around her brightened with the rising sun she donned the long-sleeved white t-shirt and comfortable blue jeans she’d laid out the night before, then wound the skinny orange crossing guard belt around her upper body. Looking at her reflection in the full length mirror next to the bed, she thought, not bad for mid-forties. She decided against makeup this morning. If she was going to get arrested, she didn’t want raccoon eyes in her mug shot.

The bed groaned with Peter’s weight as he rolled over. He’d returned late last night, stinking of old hamburger grease and non-dairy milkshakes when he climbed into bed beside her. “Don’t do it,” he said groggily.

Sandy didn’t answer, didn’t even turn to look at him. In three years he had never voiced a single complaint about SCSY or the time it took her away from home. Perhaps she should have noticed. Now that he had spoken, though, she had nothing to say to him. She left the room and walked downstairs to the kitchen.

The pair of yellow gardening gloves she’d run through the wash last night were waiting in the dryer. Another trick she’d learned from Eddie, to protect against loose splinters while carrying handmade signs at demonstrations. The cotton cloves looked wrinkled and impotent as she took them out of the dryer, faded to nearly white at the seams. But when she put them on, they stretched to fit her hands. As she picked up the six signs, taking three in each hand, she felt the strength of her own resolve ripple up the muscles of her arms and across her back.

At the end of the block Sandy positioned four of the signs along the sides of the street leading up to the telephone pole, driving each one into the well-packed dirt with a heavy rubber mallet. Then she took up her post on the sidewalk beneath the three ton prohibition sign. Her oversized red STOP sign was in one hand and her explanation of the city code in the other. Sandy’s heart beat so hard that she was breathing with her mouth open.

A Lincoln Navigator came along less than fifteen minutes later, wending its way up Cielo Avenue at a leisurely twenty miles an hour, possibly less. The rising sun caught the windshield at a sharp angle and Sandy couldn’t make out the driver’s face behind the glare. Someone she knew? Another teacher at Santa Ynez High? A SCSY member? A complete stranger?

It didn’t matter. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a brief moment. Then Sandy lifted a sign with each hand, raising her gloved fists almost as high as her ears, smiled, and walked resolutely into the path of the oncoming SUV.

















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