I had to look up Adam Gopnick’s age, just to see what the New Yorker writer was going on about in his recent piece. Not that I didn’t really know. At age 57, it turns out, he was learning to drive. His article arrived at just the right moment in my re-learning the road. For there was enough in our shared experiences to strike a chord of recognition, and make me feel relieved. Why at 57? He’s a New Yorker. He doesn’t need a car in a city of subways. He does need, it turns out, to drive…for reasons he was still exploring himself. Not the least of them being the sheer terrifying adventure.
Gopnick points out that the experience of driving and of traffic is so woven into our daily experience that we barely notice what it is. In his view, it’s an amazingly spontaneous representation of human organization. The latter being essentially democratic and remarkably uncoerced. By shared and unspoken agreement, drivers keep their speeds and their tempers down, for example. No, hardly all the time. But enough of the time to make the anomalies worthy of a name, e.g., road rage. Somehow, it happens, whether traffic is flowing uptown, and even into the Bronx…where Gopnick’s driving instructor takes him…or up the Peninsula to Glen Park, where life so frequently takes me.
As for driving anxiety, turns out Gopnick likes the incessant patter of his garrulous road instructor. Behind the wheel one needs to pay attention to some things, and not to others. Or from another perspective, anxiety may keep spilling out…but one needs to keep mopping up the excess. That’s what the friendly babble of an Ecuadorian driving instructor can do, taking your mind off the worst. While allowing some of the bad, that is to say fear, have its day. I suppose the trick is in the adjustment. Nothing wrong with a little adrenaline to keep you on your toes. Noting that with too much adrenaline your toes can start shaking, which is not a good thing.
In short, traffic can look like traffic, but it is actually a sort of miracle. Individuals make it happen. And individuals can make it unhappen too. There are reasons to fear that that swoop of taillights moving south on the 101 freeway will unravel. And there are reasons to believe it won’t. A public thank you to Vancouver friend Bob Ploss for reaffirming that driving seems perilous…because it is.
As for my driving future, what is there to say but: courage? With age, life’s brevity and fragility feel more and more tangible. Doubtless my reactions are slower too…while the traffic isn’t.
I suppose it was in the late 1970s that I spent many a Saturday night with Berkeley friends. In some point in the evening, everyone got substantially stoned. I remember waiting until it seemed safe to drive home to San Francisco. And it generally seemed safe enough…lines of cars proceeding straight along the heavily illuminated Bay Bridge…but there were moments. Particularly near the end of my drive, before getting off the freeway in San Francisco’s Mission District.
There is a sort of S in the motorway, hospital curve, named for the adjacent trauma unit. Steering through this slalom, I recall being very conscious of dangers in speed and turns…an unexpected jolt of road reality just before exiting onto the city streets…while aware that those who failed in this, or any other, maneuver wound up just over the freeway wall in San Francisco General Hospital. In a bed or on a slab. Mind you, this was just for a moment. The rest of the trip…well, I had thrown caution to the Dionysian winds.