Friday, March 19, 2010

Driven to Didaction


The seventeen year old cannot find the brand of pencil he prefers. All of the ones at my office have “shit erasers.” He throws a tizzy and stomps and snarls in a way that would induce Himself to mutter under his breath “your side of the family.” I refrain from uttering the guaranteed incendiary, “What if something pisses you off while you’re driving?” I still find it remarkable that so many of our friends have endured this student driving phase so uncomplainingly and seemingly unscathed. I suppose that in six months when I am screaming at the seventeen year old to run an errand or transport his sibling I will have forgotten this process but here in the throes it is difficult for me to think about much else. I have also heard that the excruciating pain of giving birth is soon forgotten and I’m looking forward to that too. It is weird to sit in the passenger seat of my own car and see behind the wheel this strange hulking creature that’s mutated from the tiny person on whose tummy I used to make fart sounds. Oh, the mortality! Having a son who’s old enough to drive means that I am closer to my inevitable death. And I have never been more certain as to the inevitability of my death as when he turns the key in the ignition.

I maintain dictatorial audio control while I am driving, so the seventeen year old demands parity when he is behind the wheel. Part of me wants to say that there is to be absolutely no aural interference whatsoever while he is learning to drive but I remember how urgent I was about music at his age and I sort of agree with his theory that it will help keep him focused. Unfortunately, the radio lands on a hip hop station and not the white kind of hip hop like Kanye West and Mos Def that I like.

We undertake our longest journey, over an hour from his school to my office. The tunes aren’t very mellifluous. Actually it’s sort of a big stretch to even categorize them as tunes. There are a couple of people who will probably be moving through crosswalks a bit more briskly henceforward and a swarthy man in a Corvette who will think twice about making a left turn on a yellow light. I return to the office ambulatory, albeit a bit wobbly and clammy. Per my fervent admonishments not to distract his brother, Spuds in the backseat maintains silence. I ask him later if it is frightening to him when his brother drives and he says he doesn’t know because he was asleep the whole time.

I was about sixteen and a half when I passed the driving test after three humiliating failed attempts. I made an awkward right turn, jumped the curb and hit a fire hydrant with my mother’s car shortly after being licensed. I told her it had happened while I was parked in a lot but the insurance adjuster pointed out the suspicious yellow paint. My dad bought me a splendid 1967 Dodge Dart, white with four doors and red upholstery. I was seventeen when I started college and I drove to and from Redlands and out to Palm Springs and up to the Bay Area so often that I had over 200,000 miles on the car when I totaled it a few years later on a mountain road.

I was living at the time in the tiny community of Forest Falls. The only commercial enterprise there was a Christian Conference Center and I was one of the few residents who wasn’t employed there and being of the hippie persuasion and with Jew hair, quite conspicuously so. I was probably taking diet pills at the time but I think I caused the accident by reaching for something in the glove box. I hit another car head on. Both vehicles were goners. The other driver was not injured but was 8 months pregnant and I was already less than popular in the tiny hamlet. My little poodle Gladys was with me at the time. I was pretty banged up, my face was badly cut and I lost a number of teeth. An ambulance came. I told one of the spectators my address and about the key under the mat and asked him to take Gladys home.

I was taken by ambulance to Loma Linda Hospital. My mother arrived from Los Angeles, like a bullet, in less than an hour. She drove me back to my mountain cabin the next day. It is funny to think about my intrepid mom speeding down the freeways and traversing mountain roads now that she gets lost going from her bedroom to the kitchen. My little dog Gladys was sitting on the front porch waiting when I returned the next day. No one had bothered to take her home and she walked a couple of miles and found the house herself. The accident resulted in neighbors’ censure and over a year of medical procedures but perhaps the harshest consequence of all was that my beloved Dodge was replaced by a Chevy Vega.

When I was about eighteen I drove up with some friends to San Francisco. We smoked a joint in the car while we drove through the city with the windows closed. Apparently the pot was stronger than we’d expected and also potentiated by the small enclosed space. I remember getting on the Bay Bridge with a college station blaring on the radio. Suddenly we were approaching Oakland and realized that we’d been completely unaware that we’d lost radio reception and had been deaf to loud screeching static for the entire trip across the bridge. We were also all in tears. I still get a weird feeling whenever I cross the Bay Bridge. I was only a few months older than my eldest son who will soon be driving places with his own friends.

I make the trip downtown to the library one evening to hear a favorite novelist read. It been a while since I’ve made the transition from the Pasadena Freeway to the downtown exits and it requires a quick lane change. It is dark and there is a lot of briskly moving traffic. I have changed lanes to this exit hundreds of times but for a second I feel frightened like Woody Allen when Christopher Walken confesses in Annie Hall his urge to drive straight into oncoming traffic. I change lanes in time but remain struck at my strange lack of confidence.

Although she is wearing red boots, it is satisfying to see in person Lionel Shriver one of the writers I most admire. My first digression of this piece is that while I have never had a really comfortable pair of boots and thus may be prejudiced, I am just not crazy about boots. I’m sure they’re fine and look cool in extremely cold weather. But it’s been in the 80s and not only is Lionel Shriver bootbeclad, so is the interviewer. I am distracted by the thought of how their calves must be sweating.

Lionel Shriver, for the uninitiated, is a woman named Margaret at birth. She hated the name and changed it at age fifteen, not in tribute to vibraphonist Hampton nor a model train. Her advice to those contemplating a change of name is to do it young and make it stick. I am a devotee of Shriver’s because she writes with enormous authority on a vast swath of social and moral issues but inhabits her fiction with such nuanced, authentic characters that her work doesn’t feel didactic.

Shriver writes with confidence and command and I often call her work to mind when I feel myself veering towards facile sentimentality. An American who lived for many years in Belfast and now in London, Shriver’s the recipient of the prestigious Orange Prize for Literature. Nevertheless, there is a sparse crowd at her reading and I think she can be accurately characterized as a “writer’s writer.”

I learn the sad news of Alex Chilton’s death at age 59. Chilton, frontman of the Box Tops and then Big Star, I think can be accurately characterized as a “musician’s musician,” remaining somewhat obscure but having been hugely influential to groups like REM and the Replacements. He performed with the latter band on the album “Pleased to Meet Me” on which the song “Alex Chilton” appears. This song about being in love with music is to my mind the best rock ‘n roll song ever written and while I have no other preferences as to the proceedings, I would like it played at my funeral, which seems ever more imminent when the seventeen year old practices his driving. You can even call it a celebration of life if you want. I don’t care. Just play “Alex Chilton.”

My mother hit another car in a parking lot. She denied it but there were witnesses. I noticed too an accretion of various dings and dents on her car. My hesitation about reporting her was mainly fueled by self interest and the thought of being fully responsible for her transportation. Nevertheless, I made an anonymous call to the DMV and she was summoned in several weeks later. A test was administered and her license to drive was revoked. My mother, who had driven at 90 mph to San Bernardino County at the news of my accident, was now permanently grounded. Soon I would be not only charged with her transportation but with every other facet of her existence as well.

Later in the week, the seventeen year old wants to drive to school in the morning. I make the treacherous left turn at the bottom of our hill, pull over and he takes the wheel. Mill on the Floss, which I have been enjoying on CD is switched off and a previously programmed IPOD replaces it. He has learned that in addition to red lights that stopped cars, pedestrians in crosswalks and stop signs also require the application of the brakes. There is a bus occupying much of his lane and sufficient traffic to the left to make changing lanes impossible. I would have stopped, signaled and waited for the traffic to subside or the bus to move and I presume he will do the same. He doesn’t slow down though. I cover my eyes and pound the imaginary brake pedal until my foot is numb. But he passes the bus easily, maintaining his speed and without leaving his lane. “Good.” I croak and he reaches to turn up the volume on the IPOD.

My mother trusts me with her life while the seventeen year old struggles to wrest his own from me. He is like I was at seventeen in a lot of ways, in love with music and movies. I hope he is not like me in a lot of ways. My mother made less of a fuss when her license was revoked than I thought she would. I imagine that driving had become terrifying to her but out of pride and to keep from becoming a burden she kept at it. I guess the loss of her license was actually a relief to her even though it was the first step towards her now complete dependence on me. I get a bit frightened these days myself driving the freeways at night. The seventeen year old grows more confident behind the wheel. My mother trusts me with her life, and more and more, inevitably, I will entrust my son with mine.
Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Joan Didion has a character, speaking of spaced out in the '70s, who opines how when she made the lane change from the 101 southbound onto the 110 over five lanes of traffic seamlessly, she felt she had arrived for good in L.A. If fewer such people weren't lured to our hometown, we'd have less traffic, but I digress. Glad to find a seamless move from driving to mortality to Alex C. to Lionel S., and back and forth again, in a very Angeleno rhythm.