Tuesday, January 19, 2016

it's half past four and I'm shifting gears

Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson explored the idea of good and evil personalities existing simultaneously within the same person in his 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This was an interesting concept for the time. Interesting because it was the same year Karl Benz was awarded a patent for his motorwagen, the first four-wheeled vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. All Mr. Stevenson had to do was observe well-mannered citizens get behind the steering wheel of Mr. Benz's invention and he would have witnessed the good-to-evil transition take place right before his eyes. Especially if he was driving a vehicle as well.

There is something about operating a car that changes people. Those with happy, generous, carefree personalities are suddenly transformed into viscous, seething, judgmental demons once they position their asses on that leather upholstery and grip that wheel at ten and two.

What is it about driving a car that makes people edgy, aggressive and downright angry? I remember when I was a kid, my mother — a lovely and sweet woman — would tool down the highway, point an accusing finger and yell, "Look at this son of a bitch!" at anyone who looked as though they may have a tiny, fleeting notion of possibly creeping into her lane. My dad would curl his lip with contempt and would often point out "assholes" on the road, as he drove one-handed, casually flicking cigarette ashes inadvertently into the back seat.

I was waiting at the train station last week and I watched as my friend Randi's husband swung his Toyota into the parking lot, giving his wife a lift to her morning commute. As he backed out of a parking space to face his car in the other direction, another car sneaked in behind him. Now, from my vantage point, he was nowhere near in danger of hitting this car, but the driver seem to feel perfectly within her rights to lean on her vehicle's horn long and hard, as though it were an air raid siren during the London Blitz. Randi's husband was trapped and had no choice but to endure this sonic overreaction. When he finally was able to maneuver his car and leave the lot, the irate operator of the offended car parked, shaking her head all the while. However, when she exited her car, a wave of calm washed over her. She was smiling serenely, walking with a peppy stride and a glint in her eye.

Imagine if people walking behaved like they do when they are in the protective confines of a car. If you accidentally bump someone's shoulder as you pass them on the sidewalk, the expected reaction is a quick "I'm sorry," maybe accompanied by a half-hearted smile. If your shopping bag inadvertently touches the pedestrian in front of you on a busy aisle at the mall, a modest apology would be offered or perhaps no acknowledgement at all. But imagine the same scenario in a car  — lightly bumping the car ahead, causing no visible damage, just a faint momentary jostling. All hell would break loose. There would be screaming and cursing and accusations and insults. Threats of lawsuits and restitution and bodily pain.

I have not driven regularly for nearly nine years. Because I take the train to work, my car sits quietly in front of my house six days a week. I only take it for a five minute excursion to the dry cleaner every other Saturday. Otherwise, it is a giant paperweight. A placeholder. Boy, can you imagine me behind the wheel with my lack of patience... ?

Remember Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, taking the furry weather forecaster out for a spin and allowing him to steer with the admonition: "Don't drive angry! Don't drive angry!" Even Bill knew the effects a car can have.

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