Vanity

Do Hollywood directors actually yell ‘action’ when the camera rolls? In this digital age, do cameras even roll? As for me, am I on a roll…or rolling to a stop? And if I knew either way, why would it matter? More to the point, what if a director…actually, the 1920s silent variety, complete with knickerbockers and megaphone…walked right through my open front door and yelled ‘action’ at me? Several times a day, in fact. Wouldn’t this be good? I mean, really. For closely allied to FDR’s famous ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ dictum is my own variation. The only thing I have to fear is inaction.

Actually, make it a 1930s director. I want out of the silent era. Bad idea that. Now, we are into the era of talkies. And the guy with the clapper board is there to sync sound as the director yells a slightly different command just for me: speak. A carefully tailored introvert’s instruction. Which I found myself doing in somewhat uncomfortable circumstances with my friend Billy just days ago. Without revealing too much biographical material, both of us have experienced physical violence. And both of us could be classed as high achievers, at least relatively speaking, and chronically overwrought, a.k.a., demented in a socially acceptable way. We pass. We pass out only privately. And we were comparing notes. Anxiety, it seems, is getting to each of us. And around the same thing. Driving.

What a refreshing discussion. Action! Speak! And damned if I wasn’t doing just this, over an afternoon’s caffeination at Peet’s, with Billy. What’s with driving? Anxiety, a tendency to get overly frightened and overreact when things go awry on the great highway of life. Swerving traffic. An unexpected horn honking. Nerves. A higher level of driving jitters than usual. And why?

Well, things are changing. My neuromuscular situation is not what it was. Along with declining night vision, slower reactions, and a few other things. But I can still drive. Although the experience is less comfortable. Surely I can get to Oakland for my cousin’s Passover Seder. Though I am not so sure, and this is a bit of an overreaction. I have not driven this far in quite a while. Which coupled with the fact that my van can sit idle for weeks at a time, driven so little that the new battery can easily go flat…adds up to anxiety. Driving there in rush-hour traffic. Driving home in the dark. Scary. Can I do it?

When I think of the 1970s…. I cringe. Life in my early 30s, a time when I had my first job and my best friends happened to live in Berkeley. And Saturdays often involved a jaunt across the Bay where I inhaled staggering amounts of cannabis…well, enough to make a partial quadriplegic stagger…then drove home. Which, one must point out, involved a long ride over the infamous Bay Bridge, a midnight slalom along San Francisco’s notorious Central Freeway, then a drive into the city’s Noe Valley neighborhood in search of parking. How I actually got home under the circumstances currently eludes me. I do recall making it inside my San Francisco apartment, sitting down and feeling my head spin. And wondering, fortunately, if I was exercising an appropriate level of caution in my life.

Adverse conditions, which decades later have been replaced by a bit of Passover wine and a high level of fear. So what does one do? Action. Take one. A quick look at the local transit website, Bay Area 511, which informs me that the way to get home from Oakland at 9 PM on a Friday is to travel through a part of town frequently featured on the 10 o’clock news. Where, if I am not a blood-splattered statistic, a change of buses, then a 1 AM trip on Caltrain will get me home early the next morning. Which is ridiculous. The drive takes less than 45 minutes. Which, of course, is what I will do. Carefully, fairly slowly, although not ludicrously slowly, thank you very much. For I may be 65, but so is the speed limit. Where was I?

Working on anxiety. That was it. Better bring the van into the local mechanic. Where I had a sort of epiphany. Get the grim mechanical news, whatever it might be, authorize whatever work…then get the interior cleaned.

It has been haunting me for years, particularly the carpet. I know where the bodies are buried, vanwise. More precisely, where the urinals have been spilled. If you have any questions about the latter, sorry, but this is so intrinsic to quadriplegic driving, the presence of a urinal on board…and, yes, the occasional spillage…that explanation seems unnecessary. In any case, trust me. And it says something about my van that the olfactory evidence of this particular spill has dissipated. Which doesn’t make sense. I suspect that the biomass environment that is my van carpet barely noted the addition of a little extra ammonia. However, I made a mental note. Get this carpet cleaned. I’m not sure the thing has ever been shampooed. I have had the van for more than 15 years.

The sheer act of driving 1000 meters to the Shell station takes a certain amount of will – and pays off in a certain of road familiarity, confidence. Hours later when I pick it up, the van reveals itself to be in excellent shape. An oil change. Headlights that don’t adjust, but I knew this. That’s why I also scheduled an appointment with the disabled-control-apparatus people in Sunnyvale. This is their province, the quadriplegic raising and lowering of headlight beams, a special device that involves my right elbow. Never mind. The van, it turns out, is now next door at Ducky’s Carwash. I have to wait an additional 45 minutes. But it’s worth it. Once I get myself inside, both the appearance and the smell, or its absence, tell me I have done the right thing. The other right thing involves the Hispanic staff of Ducky’s. Several of whom are waiting while I get myself situated and ready to drive.

Normally this takes no time at all. The driver’s seat in my van mechanically swivels, turning sideways to allow me to drop into it, then rotating to face the wheel. Having been driven here by an able-bodied guy from the Shell station, he has left the seat in place, in a normal driving position. Hard to know what to do. I lock the wheelchair in place, stand and lean over the seat, gently pressing the switch on the side. The chair turns, but slightly too much, catching me under one knee. I collapse sideways, reclining on my hip. Some fancy footwork ensues. I did get one leg under me, manage to sit up, slowly dragging and wrenching my torso against the seat back. Outside the puzzled carwash staff are waiting. What is the gringo doing? Why is the invalido taking so long?

All this makes me rush as fast as I can. Now more or less in the proper driving position, I hit the switch that swivels the chair back into place. Unfortunately, having not thought this through, in my haste the seat whips around and jams my hand against the door. Something is wrong. No, not wrong, just out of adjustment. The seat is too high. Unfortunately, I can’t do much about this, because my hand is jammed against the door. Reverse. Flipping the switch the other way undoes this. Back and forth a few times, up and down, and finally the seat is where it should be. I start the engine. I back out. A man motions that I should proceed in reverse. He is guiding me. I don’t need him. The driveway is actually wide enough for 10 vans. But maybe I wanted him there anyway. Which is okay. Problem is, now I have to pee. All this excitement. Never mind. This van contains a plastic urinal. If necessary…which is all I need to know. A margin. A safety backup. I drive home quite continent.

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