Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Hands On The Wheel But The Roof Is Open

My car has a black eye. A sexy scar, a little bit of body damage.

Do other cars find that attractive? Do they find it erotic or intimidating? Perhaps the other cars in the parking lot or on that tony street in Beverly Hills are impressed by my car’s battle wounds and think he’s the shit.

Except for that one little Italian model that says, “He ain’t got nothin’.”

* * *

Last weekend, a prankster painted my license plate.

This special someone used a brush and some kind of primer to white out my registration number. It came off with a paint scraper, taking just a few minutes out of my Sunday. Not much of a practical joke.

As I was working on it, a neighbor walked by and said, “Hey, while you’re at it, you should get a razor blade and cut an ‘x’ into your registration sticker.”

Have a nice day.

* * *

I spend two to three hours a day in the car, stopping and rolling. I do not live in El Monte or in the Valley, either. No, I am right here in town, just a few miles away from where I work. On the freeways, you sit. They fill up before the sun rises, and the jams begin by the time the sky is lit. City streets can sometimes get you there more quickly, but they are also riskier.

When it gets really bad and I am feeling upset about the traffic, I will sometimes take a time-out. I pull off the road, find a café, and chill out.

On the wall at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, I notice a sculpture hanging next to me. It is made of license plates. It gives me a weird, macabre sort of feeling.

* * *

One Thanksgiving, I drove from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay for dinner. In the middle of the desert, all northbound traffic on the freeway was shut down for a while because of a car accident. They had to land a helicopter on the road to evacuate a crash victim. This took an hour and a half. People got out of their cars, walked around, mingling. A football was tossed back and forth, someone played a guitar.
Eventually, the all-clear traveled like a southward breeze, and we all turned the engines on and resumed our journeys.

As after the Christmas Truce of 1914, the combatants completed the spontaneous cease-fire and, once in their cars, immediately resumed hostilities.

* * *

The car’s fuel gauge is a little funny. After half a tank, the needle drops to empty, and then it bounces and drops again when it is out of gas. Like a lot of people, the car has a little trouble knowing what it wants and clearly communicating its needs.

I have learned that the fuel gauge is an instrument the fails frequently across all makes and models, and is frequently left unrepaired.

As with people.

* * *

Mr. Nelson left today for several days of driving. He landed a job driving to Iowa, then to Seattle, and then to Montana. He invited me to join him knowing I probably could not go.

Despite my feelings about city traffic, I envy Chris his road trip. My five cross-country drives were all experiences I remember fondly. On a road trip, the entire country feels like it is mine to explore and appreciate. I am on the ground, yet I stand on nobody’s map but my own.

Strange how driving can confer such a feeling of freedom, and also a feeling of being utterly confined, as when I sit listening to financial news on NPR watching the lights and waiting for the cars ahead of me to move forward.

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