Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On Heavy Traffic


Shot from the muzzles of Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee, vehicles converge on three westbound lanes on Interstate 90. The freeways from the three cities have triangulated the traffic onto a broad, sunny prairie between green, rolling hills and the trucks and cars roar across the plain as if on a race-track – although the speed limit is posted 65 no one drives slower than 75 miles per hour and there is a curious sense of urgency in the parallel processions of speeding vehicles. Although not exactly bumper-to-bumper, the traffic is dense, cars and trucks hurtling forward with only 30 or forty feet between them. Since the Interstate is straight and flat and the lanes well-marked, everything proceeds smoothly, not so much whitewater rapids of chrome and fender, but, rather, a millrace surging toward the blue ridge of the Baraboo range.

Novelists have explored the psychological states of murderers and rapists, saints and heroes and villains. From books that we have read, we know what it is like to plot a terrorist attack or solve a mystery or commit adultery. But no one, it seems, has explored the psychology and experience of a motorist, confined in his or her car in heavy traffic on a freeway. Most people in the world are commuters of one sort or another and millions spend hours behind the wheel in their cars, but there are precious few depictions of this experience. With the exception of some perverse meditations by J. G. Ballard, I don’t know of any truthful representations of the experience of driving in fast and heavy traffic. Of course, there are plenty of accounts of car chases at high-speed, but these adventures do not penetrate to the heart of the quotidian, routine experience of driving cross-country on a congested freeway. No one seems to have devoted much energy to exploring what it is like to drive on a busy highway, to be one of the multitude traversing asphalt and concrete from here to there. I suppose this is because the experience of driving in traffic is one of mild suffering and slight irritation and representation, like thought, tends toward the extreme, toward exaggeration – we have plenty of depictions of agony, but few narratives devoted to mild or slight discomfort. Jesus is always writhing on the cross with hands and feet split by nails and his forehead gouged by thorns. No one is interested in the old man in the crowd at the foot of the cross who is thirsty after a meal of spicy food and fidgeting with a full bladder.

If we are honest, we must admit that freeway driving is an experience of selfishness and boredom, distraction and minor discomfort, a tense sort of waiting and imminence in which something is always about to occur, although the occurrence is almost always also deferred indefinitely: a bland exercise that conceals panic and rage and hysteria. The exhaustion that accompanies long-haul driving is the fatigue of restraining emotions that can’t be acknowledged: feelings of terror and homicidal anger. And the entire experience is wrapped in the mystery of a moving world that forever flees us because our looking is limited to a perpetual, nervous glance, an over-the-shoulder glimpse, a momentary diversion of eyes from road to rear-view mirror, sights seen in reflection through layers of smeared glass.

Driving is a selfish activity because we necessarily perceive our journey as having an unique importance. I am going somewhere. I have deadlines to meet. The others on the road have less right to the highway than I do. I always think that my destination is important and my errand significant and meaningful – the others on the freeway are out for a Sunday drive, going nowhere in particular, trespassing, as it were, on the precious space between the exits and the lanes. I am going somewhere and they are simply in the way, impediments to my progress. But, of course, everyone else on the highway has the same perspective: each id confined within its capsule of glass and chrome perceives himself to be uniquely purposeful and entitled – all the others are just in the way.

Driving, of course, is too simple. The equipment required to pilot the car operates intuitively and is readily at hand as well as more or less frictionless, effortless – the experience of driving is that of mental activity, not physical exertion. The ease with which we drive lends a surface veneer of boredom to the enterprise. Not much is happening; we control the mighty engine on which we are riding with tiny flicks of the wrist and finger. And so, if all goes well, we are bored and the mind wanders and can’t find any purchase in the landscape spinning by. Indeed, it is impossible to know where to focus the eyes when we drive. If you look at the edges of the road or the lane markers firing past the car like illuminated tracer bullets or the weeds in the ditch, the world is a blur of speed – you can’t see anything clearly because it is gone before the image registers. On the other hand, if you look across the fields to the hills and horizon, nothing moves at all – the green and blue and grey distances are immobile. Directing one’s attention to the immediate prospect, we see that all the cars are moving at about the same speed – they drift apart or together languidly with relative velocities slower than our speed as we might amble along a forest path. The combination of these differing perspectives is disorienting: trash and goldenrod in the ditch blast past us with dizzying speed, the hills and valleys of the greater landscape are motionless, and the procession of cars moving forward at 80 miles an hour displays only very slight motion, the vehicles slowly advancing or retreating in relation to one another. The eye can’t fix on any particular vantage since all perspectives are true and false in the same measure: if we think we are moving a great speed consider the relative motions between cars and the distant ridges with their red and white scaffolding of transmission towers; but if the motionless hills and almost motionless patterns of traffic before us are too entrancing, turn your eye for an instant to the foreground, the scuffed pavement and the debris in the ditch rocketing by with the velocity of a bullet.

As we drive, we are always dependant upon the courtesy and attentiveness of the strangers in their vehicles on both sides, ahead of us and behind. Our safety – indeed, our lives and limbs – are in the hands of others whom we don’t know. And we know that those others care nothing for our well-being and, indeed, are even indifferent to us. How do we know this? Because we care nothing for the safety and well-being of the other drivers and their passengers in transit across the highway. They must be inattentive and distracted by daydreams and private concerns, their radios and music and conversation, because, of course, we are similarly distracted and inattentive. My life depends on someone else’s attentiveness to the highway and its perils and, yet, I know that the other driver is only remotely concerned with his or surroundings, attention diverted by distractions, half-asleep or lost in thought. I know this because this is my mood – one of boredom, distraction, and faint discomfort. My posture is not exactly optimum; my muscles are too tense and my foot over brake and accelerator is uneasy with cramps or the harbingers of cramps, a tautness in my calves just between knee and ankle, and I am gripping the wheel too tightly and this translates anxiety into my shoulders which are also tense and I am half-alert to my bowels and bladder, wondering whether there will be a place to stop to relieve the pressure in those parts of my body. My mind is wandering, rushing ahead to my destination or still entrapped in the place from which I came and my eye has no purchase on the world, no fixed place to rest, and so I know that I am something of a menace on the highway, not exactly equal to the perils and risks of traveling at high-speed in flimsy armatures of plastic and aluminum alloy. Of course, I have the right to be fatigued, distracted, less than alert. But those around me, don’t have that right, because their inattentiveness might be deadly to me. I allow myself permission to be less perfectly attentive to the road and fellow travelers but I can’t authorize those around me to share in my distraction – they are dangers to me, but, of course, this is not reciprocal since I don’t perceive myself to be a danger to them. So I am always alert to the imminence of a crash – I know that I am not equal to controlling the car at these speeds with this many other fast-moving vehicles all around me. If something goes wrong, we will all be doomed. And, of course, I understand that the others on the highway are just like me, although they don’t have the right to be just like me because I own this Interstate and they are mere trespassers on my domain. I am going somewhere and they are going nowhere and this must always be considered when appraising who has the right to be here.

At any instant, the morons, the fools, the reckless idiots around me are likely to maneuver their vehicles in such a way as to slam me off the road or hurl me into oblivion. A fiery crash is waiting around every corner and attends every lane change. It would be profoundly unfair for me to be destroyed by one of these interlopers, one of my foes on the highway. This is the world of Hobbes – the war of each against each and all against all. We survive only by cooperation but, at any moment, someone can break the dozen or so contracts relating to speed and acceleration and deceleration and direction that preserve us all alive at 80 mile per hour on this stretch of unforgiving roadway. If the contract is breached, someone will die or be injured or, at the very least, suffer destruction of their property. And so, I am always self-righteously coiled to strike, to injure and wound, always trembling on the verge of murderous rage if my rights are violated, suffering panic, as well, at the danger that surrounds me on all sides. And, of course, these emotions are repressed, concealed in the bland, trivial activity of driving, but, at any moment, poised to erupt if something goes wrong. It is a terrible thing to be delivered into the skill and discretion of others, particularly when I know that those others who are going nowhere have no right to the highway and are, probably, just as indifferent, distracted, and incompetent in their operation of their vehicles as I am. None of us is fit for this road-race and we are all enemies.

All of this suppressed hatred and fear is wrapped in the great and mysterious enigma of the traffic around me – it’s obscure and hidden purposefulness. The world is a vast fantasy of curious apparitions, inexplicable desires, strange and half-illegible ciphers. Here I am on Interstate 90, surrounded by traffic all moving at high-speed in the direction of exit 119, Arlington and Lodi, Wisconsin. There is a panel truck ahead with a license-plate that reads HITMAN1. A big semi-truck labeled KOCH in scarlet letters bounces along to my right, blocking my view of the traffic ahead of it. Vehicles bearing trademarks around their license-plates of north and west suburb Chicago car dealerships run parallel to me – perhaps, people are going to the Wisconsin Dells. A limousine-long Suburban rides the lane to my left, the rear window of the vehicle marked with stick-figures identifying the members of the family: the upright father, tallest among the decals, a little like the mast of a ship, and mother with her long, disheveled hair, only rising to the height of daddy’s shoulder, then, the children-decals in descending height, one, two, three boys and girls, a series of downward steps to baby and the dog who sits at the end of the row of figures with tail curled around him. Why do people feel the need to display their family members in decals of this kind? And what happens if there is a divorce or a child dies of leukemia or the dog is hit by a car? Does someone take a razor blade to that back window and scrape the decal from the glass? Does mommy razor daddy off the pane if there is a divorce? Does the family buy another dog to replace the one killed by a car so that the decal will not have to be sheared away? Next to the Suburban displaying the stick-figure decal family, there is a tradesman’s truck bearing an Illinois license-plate. The truck has writing on its side panels: UPGRADE HOME RENOVATION. On the tail-gate of the pickup, in beautiful cursive letters, these words are written: You Should See What I Saw! What does that mean?

Once I wrote a story based on a license-plate that I saw on the freeway between Austin and Albert Lea. The license plate was on a black sports car and read B WIDOW. I named the story "Widow B" and my narrative was a lurid speculation about the meaning of the license plate. The tale is posted on this blog and you can read it here; indeed, I recommend that you take a look at it. Two or three months after I wrote the short story, I met an elderly man for a conference in my law office. The old man had been injured in a very bad car accident in Rochester, Minnesota. He had carried a little, nervous white dog into my office and the animal sat trembling on his lap as he told me his story.

After a protracted illness, the old man’s wife had died. Tragically, his daughter was also struck down by some deadly illness and he had buried her, as well, during the preceding year. The old man lived alone except for his little dog in a small town in northwest Iowa. One day, the old man’s younger brother, who lived in Rochester, came to visit him. His brother suggested that the old man drive to Rochester for a visit. They left town mid-morning in their two cars and drove across the featureless, wet prairies of southern Minnesota – it was early Spring – on Interstate 90. It was a grey day and the old man, with his dog beside him on the front seat, followed his brother’s sleek black car over the empty highway to Rochester. The next day, the old man and his brother went out for breakfast. It was their plan to eat at a Perkins Cake and Steak pancake house on Highway 52 in Rochester. On the way to the restaurant, an oncoming car made an illegal left-hand turn, disregarding the old man’s right-of-way and crashed into the driver’s side of his Pontiac. The car spun around and was flung into a watery ditch where it toppled onto its side. The old man was very badly injured. A passer-by picked up the tiny dog a hundred yards from the smashed car. The little animal was standing in the median of the roadway quivering like a leaf but, otherwise, uninjured.

I don’t recall how the subject arose, but, in the course of my conference with the old gentleman, he told me that his brother drove a sleek, black sports car. The old man’s younger brother had been nicknamed "Black Widow" when he was a little boy and the moniker had stuck. The brother’s sleek, black sports car bore a vanity plate that was lettered "B WIDOW". The coincidence was astounding. I had seen that car when the old man followed it across the desolate, flooded prairie in early Spring. Indeed, I had even written a short story about that vehicle and its imagined occupant. The old man had silvery hair and very fine manners and his little dog had wet bulbous eyes and was very well-behaved. I explained the law in Minnesota applicable to motor vehicle accidents. After listening to me, and making a few notes, the old man said that the whole enterprise seemed like too much trouble to him and he told me that he was unwilling to sue anyone at his stage in life and, so, gently lifting his dog, he left my office and hobbled to his car.

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