On the Royal Highway

Never change shoes, that is the lesson of the moment. And it is a frightening moment…unless I get a grip, not just on the steering wheel, but on this frisson of anxiety. Never quite sure why they call it El Camino Real, for it is extremely unroyal, this six-lane commercial strip that runs through our suburbs. Nice to have Jane actively concurring in this belief, posting several comments on my latest column for the Menlo Park Almanac…and encouraging me to not be so timid about stirring up controversy. Readers don’t have to love you…being the point. All of this distracting me, perhaps even calming me during this, my day’s low grade automotive terror.

Shouldn’t have changed the shoes. Because I have been relearning to drive, after the one-year hiatus when my van was either inoperative or absent. And, well, the shoes. The good ones have hard soles. Their heel fits into a crescent-shaped opening, designed to stabilize and hold my one non-paralyzed foot in place. And whatever I’ve learned, my compromised nervous system has transmitted through the hard leather soles of these particular shoes.

Which I’m not wearing at the moment, am I? No, the good shoes are currently under repair. And I would have to put on these with foam rubber soles, tactile messages from the brake and accelerator pedals greatly muffled by their softness.

And now it has come to this, the place where I have to turn left. Not really my fave, cutting across traffic. But one has to man up, vehicularly, and I’m doing just that, merging…as we say in these fair United States…with those others in their cars. Who are they, and what sort of shoes are they wearing?

God, I don’t know why my foot slipped back there on Alma Avenue. I’m not even sure if it did slip. But there was this feeling, all of a sudden…that my foot was here and the brake was there, and they didn’t know each other, the lower extremity and the pedals. Which isn’t good, is it? The question is, what happened? And did anything happen? Or was I just being, you know, anxious.

Furthermore, whatever happened to focus? What happened to my eyesight? Oh, I’ve had it tested. But it’s not what it was, is it? Nothing is. And, really, should I be driving at all? Here it is. That place where I thought I was going to turn left. But there’s too much traffic. Too many cars going straight, and more or less at me. Maybe I’ll carry on a bit. Easy enough to abandon this left turn signaling, change plan and continue southbound. Okay, here. This looks like a good spot. Good, left turn completed and where am I? Maybe this is so-called Professorville, a neighborhood in Palo Alto that today must be singularly short of professors, each of these conventional two-story homes from the 20s and 30s probably ranging from $3-5 million….  Stanford University having long ago provided housing for major academic contracts. Charlotte Corday says it best in Marat/Sade, “what kind of town is this?” So mental chitchat gets me all the way to Middlefield Avenue, then a right, then a left and there he is, my friend, Billy.

Splendid. Now he’s on board and we are off to dinner. It’s Wednesday and Jane is dining with her parishioners. Good. Billy and I get some guy time. And now, I get to park. The latter being very fraught. For the parking lot is old and narrow, and damned if these two cars on opposite sides of the passage aren’t awfully close. How close? I am embarrassed to admit that it’s not clear. Nothing is clear these days, owing to my age, late 60s, vision declining, nerve waning. I inch between the cars. Finally I stop. I ask Billy how much room there is. Embarrassing for a guy, the sort of admission that I cannot drive between two cars in a suburban lot. Billy assures me that there is one foot to his right, and I can see to my left, so, what the hell.

Onward. And into a disabled space…but, no, not so fast. The ramp descends, and I roll out like ET. Only to find that I have overcompensated, allowing so much space to maneuver in and out of the van that a rogue driver can occupy it. I tell Billy that I need to straddle the blue line. Now I’m back in the van, retracting the ramp. And Billy is making hand motions, drive forward, turn the wheel this way, a little closer, and you’ve got this much room over here…. Fuck him. Does he think I don’t know how to drive? It’s a sore spot, this driving thing.

Mercifully, it’s easy going home. Maybe I am getting used to it, this shoe with the rubber sole. The name of a Beatles album, at one point. And wasn’t Paul Simon singing about “old friends” and going on about how they were “sitting on benches like bookends?” And even the singularly dismal observation, “how terribly strange to be 70.” And he just came out with an album, a rather good one. Still so “strange,” Paul? Being 90, now, that might be strange. Although there’s nothing about Leo Litwak, whose 90th birthday celebration Jane and I just attended a couple of days ago. Read his book, published at age 89, and you’ll get the idea.

The body falters, that is the thing. Which is why the very next day I am driving Billy to the Palo Alto veterans hospital for a little pain control. In the outpatient surgery department they will give him some serious injection. And for once I’m on the giving end of this sort of expedition. I am driving him. Which, I must admit, feels awfully good. Naturally, there’s no parking at the sprawling hospital. We drive up one aisle and down another. Guys in wheelchairs are hanging out on the asphalt…as I did myself, Saturdays at the Los Angeles rehabilitation hospital where I spent five months being rather dull. So when there weren’t visitors, what was there to do except roll out in the parking lot and get stoned?

This has also reversed, with me the sober post-surgical driver waiting for Billy to emerge. Stunningly, but not surprisingly, for this veterans’ hospital seems rather wonderful, he is done early. We make a scheduled stop at Chipotle where Billy tanks up on food. No one can blame him. He’s been fasting, after all. A combat vet, he is suffering the effects of youthful parachute jumps and God knows what else. His spine, his joints, everything’s going screwy. I watch as he downs a handful, literally, of pills. I have to give it to him. He has kept his weight down, his muscle mass up, everything required of the orthopedically compromised. I am impatient to get back to the only thing that can be deemed work these days, my regular pieces for the local newspaper.

El Camino Real. We can’t get away from the royal highway, at this moment roaring past the outdoor terrace of Chipotle. Which does remind me of my latest column, which focuses on efforts to “Save Menlo,” a group of the same name having gotten our burg’s latest anti-growth measure on the autumn ballot. Which is too bad, for Menlo Park needs to grow, or to change. It’s like believing that Professorville still houses professors. Jane would like me to get more aggressive. And, I confess to Billy, so would I. And a further confession. I am afraid that people won’t love a more strident me. That, and the curious need of the well-adjusted cripple…wanting to fit in, appear…yes, a silly word…normal.

Billy is an extrovert, a New Yorker, a talker. We don’t always mesh. And now, as though the last two days, driving days, have come together, he turns to me and says he would like to see me be more assertive too. A matter of no small import, I realize. And on the way home, despite the need to park one more time, again dealing with curb distance and fearing that I’m going to destroy this, my massively expensive disabled-equipped car…and it’s awfully late in the day to be drinking coffee. Fuck it. I eyeball the parking lot at Philz Coffee, legendary in these parts, and decide to drive just a few meters up the road. Where, suburbia having its virtues, there is an easy-to-maneuver space. I get out, get highly caffeinated and resume this, my life…duration unclear, pitfalls frightening. But, at least, I have one. And, yes, I have a thing or two to say to Menlo Parkians about El Camino Real.

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