Minnesota's co-op op-ed page
So I’m on my way back from my niece’s house. She lives in Afton and has a yearly pumpkin carving party that I was able to attend this year. It’s raining a bit, so the road is a little slick, and I realize that my driving style, as it were, uses more of a defensive than an offensive technique. I used to drive like a bit of a maniac back in my day. I was always making these epic cross country trips by myself, so speed was of the essence, as I always had somewhere I absolutely had to get to and I wanted to get the solitary trip over with. My mother will read this column, so I’m getting myself in trouble here, but I have caught myself doing 110 mph on the 5 from LA to San Francisco. I was once pulled over in Iowa pushing 100, and somehow miraculously talked the state trouper out of giving me a ticket. It was weird. He offered me the ticket right then, or, if I got pulled over again by someone else between there and my destination, then THEY would give me the ticket. I chose the latter.
But these days I’m in no hurry. If I have a gig, I leave in time to get there. I fly a lot more. And most of the time, when doing mundane things like cleaning my house or driving from point A to B, I just use the time to argue with people in my head, fantasize about my imaginary relationship with Benedict Cumberbatch, or compose stuff to write later, like this week’s column. So I’m tooling along, wary of the slickness of this chilly evening’s rain, and I notice that I spend a lot less time these days trying to figure out how to frogger my way through the lanes in a manner that will make me the win the race, and a lot more time figuring out which drivers to stay the hell away from.
The first one I notice is holding up the fast lane. He’s being stalked very closely by Tailgater McGee, so I don’t notice him right away. But Tailgater gives up and switches lanes, which gives me a perfect view of this ramshackle sedan drifting a good three feet onto the shoulder sporadically and driving roughly two miles an hour. He suddenly veers into the left lane, and starts swaying across into the next lane over and back. So I speed way the hell up and pass him, watching him intensely as I go, lest he sideswipe me in one of his wanderings. I imagine he must be on some sort of drug, legal or not, or he’s having a heated text argument on his smart phone, or he’s been up for days, and he’s barely keeping it together. Maybe he’s a trucker who just made a cross-country run under a deadline, and he ran out of No-Doz early in the trip, and all of the gas stations were out, so he had to make the run straight, just slapping his face and chugging Coke, and he just dropped off his rig, and is now on his way home to slip into a three-day coma. Whatever the reason, his definition of a lane differs greatly from mine, and I’d rather not be anywhere near him when he lazily drifts into my car at highway speeds.
I bypass Tailgater McGee as well and soon come upon another guy, mere inches from the bumper of the vehicle in front of him, in a jacked up SUV with wheels so enormous he must need a stepladder to get up to his seat. I call him Bigwheel out loud as I watch him menace the poor Subaru in front of him, give up, swerve into the next lane dramatically, find no escape, then return to harass the Subaru again. Now, I like to keep a nice safe distance from the vehicle in front of me. I expand that distance dependant on the speed in which we are going to account for my ability to stop if something goes down. I think I remember them even mentioning that in the driver’s manual I had to read before I took the written test to earn a license to operate a car. Maybe this guy didn’t take that test.
But I mean, for Christ’s sake! What if a stray dog or a deer or an escaped convict or a family of illegal immigrants darts in front of the Subaru? They’re taking Bigwheel down with them, because he’ll have nowhere to go. Or what if a chunk of the overpass falls, because Minnesota isn’t historically known for the structural integrity of their bridges, or a piece of a satellite crashes on Subaru’s hood, or he’s drunk and he jerks into the guard rail? Lights out, Bigwheel. Kissing the trunk of the car in front of you isn’t going to get you anywhere faster, but it does ensure that you will be right there with the action if he has an accident.
I stop paying specific attention to each vehicle, because I’m now imagining the lives of Bigwheel and the sleepy trucker. But amidst my half hour drive down 94W I am periodically cut off by people who seem not to be aware of the little blinkers on either sides of their cars meant to indicate to other drivers their intention to alter the straight path in which they are traveling. I am tailgated myself, blinded by the headlights of people impervious to the fact that, until I pass this car, I will be unable to switch lanes and clear their path. And I, too am frustrated by those who plant themselves in the fast lane, driving around 40, oblivious to the fact that this lane is actually intended to accommodate those who wish to travel at speeds that exceed the minimum limit, or those who begin to pass me, then slow down to match my speed, flanking me for miles in case they are T-boned by an errant bus or runaway train, I’ll be there to catch the shrapnel.
I took driver’s ed. They showed me all sorts of gory photos of accidents, scaring me forever into wearing my seatbelt. They also taught me traffic rules and whatnot. Did all these people forget? Was it too long ago? Are they like that guy in Memento who has that weird form of amnesia where he only remembers the last 10 minutes?
I am a judgmental person. I always have been. When I was a child, I remember thinking that several of my mom’s friends were terrible mothers. I would mutter to her about the shame of it all on our way home from visits. There was this woman in my small hometown. She was a heavy drinker. She was ALWAYS in the bars no matter what time of day, and she had this small boy, who couldn’t have been more than eight years old. She’d drag him to the bar with him. And he’d wander around, bored, poking at the pinball machine he had no quarters to play, or punching buttons on the jukebox. It didn’t matter if it was two in the afternoon or ten at night, she was there with that sad little boy. I was absolutely horrified. What kind of person dooms this small child to haunt bars day and night? It was positively scandalous! Looking back, I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten myself, so how the hell did I know how often this boy was in the bars?
I used to honk freely at all the idiots in the other cars around me doing their stupid things, and endangering us all. But then I got this Ford Probe that had this feeble little horn that would barely moan when you pressed it, then gradually grow louder until it was almost audible outside the car after like 2 minutes. Not a very imposing tool. So I learned how to swallow my rage. I learned a bit of patience at red lights turned green. I learned how to have scathing discussions with other drivers inside my car rather than involve them in my anger. I think I am a much calmer person because of that horn.
But really people! I think we often forget that we are operating a giant lethal pile of metal that can travel at great speeds into things or people or other piles of metal. The road is not just a big path cleared for us to get to our reservation at that new thai restaurant everyone’s talking about. It is populated by other drivers with whom we have the capacity to collide, so it is in our best interest if we keep them abreast of our intentions and not make any sudden erratic movements. The road might involve bicyclists or motorcyclists or be crossed by pedestrians who are more vulnerable than we are, as they are not encased in steel, so it would be courteous of us to notice their presence and respect their right to also use the pavement.
Basically, I think it would do us all a great bit of good to stop several times a day and remind ourselves that other people exist.