Men Who Can't Drive
(originally published in IMPULSE, 1987)
J. sat in the car, passively chain-smoking while P. waited in the lengthy lineup. Suddenly an enormous van pulled up from behind. J. quickly fastened his seat belt and leaned toward the windshield. The van driver braked suddenly. Anticipating the worst, J. was surprised to see the driver walk amicably toward his door and motion for J. to roll down the window. Nervously, J. complied.
"Didn't he leave the keys in the car for you?"
J. looked at the man for a second, grinning sheepishly.
"Yes, he did. Could you please move the car?"
The driver stared at J for a moment, then laughed. It had been a long time indeed since he'd encountered a man who didn't know how to drive.
The non-driver restricts his or herself to a relatively small geographical parametera ghetto. Some metropolises, for example New York City, are essentially a series of ghettos, in which particular types of businesses or groups of individuals tend to group together and then proceed to other groups. In such a ghettoized city there is little, if any, need for an individual whose ambition is simply to "get by" or "make ends meet" to extend his or herself outside of the immediate neighbourhood. But an active capitalist can seldom afford such smugness or snobbery. An individual on the make must be open-minded and accessible to all potential adversaries. The newer American cities, the cities west of the Mississippi or the cities developed in the midst of the gold-rush fever, consisted of like0minded neighbourhoods with a greater amount of space between themselves and their Eastern counterparts. Today those metropolises, whether Dallas, Phoenix or the prototypical Los Angeles, are essentially a series of subdivisions linked by winding freeways. Business, in these modern metropolises, by definition transacts at a considerable distance from the home-base, and therefore ownership of personal transportation is essential to any commercial enterprise. In such a modern metropolis the economically-active individual becomes a player; and a player without transport might as well admit defeat at the starting gate.
J. was prompted by his instructor to signal a left turn while driving through suburbia in his learner-designated Oldsmobile. "Easy on the wheel, J. Just relax, please.", his teacher muttered as J. executed his tentative left turn. The suburbs are ideal training ground for a beginner; there are more than enough stop-signs or side-streets to be right or left-turned onto and more than enough sudden turns at the top or bottom of a hill to instill fear in any fledgling driver. After successfully negotiating the subdivision with only one mistake (a nervous right-hand turn which forced the instructor to jump on the passenger-seat emergency brake), J. found himself poised to turn left onto a major street again. When he snuck a glance at the street-names while waiting for the red light to turn, he realized that he had driven past the house from which he had run away at the age of thirteen.
The boy who doesn't learn how to drive upon or soon after reaching the legal age is deviating from the roles and behaviour patterns which are expected from him. Although in modern suburban cities girls are also expected to obtain their licenses upon reaching legal age, boys are the ones who have been bombarded with car-culture ever since leaving the baby-crib. The boy who doesn't immediately run out and pass his driving exam cuts himself off from one of his contemporaries' major reference points.
Driving leaves no room for anything abstract, aside from an automatic memory-bank of the rules of the road. Once the dream of car access or ownership has been achieved, the profession has no room for dreamers (those who more than occasionally allow non-linear thought-patterns to disrupt their narrative destination). Anticipation is indeed crucial to a good driver, but only anticipation involving elements contained within the field of immediate vision. Driving requires the suspension of all ideologies, obsessions, fixations, rivalries, etc… It has nothing whatever to do with theory, everything to do with practice.
Drivers control narrative. They determine its point of departure, its route, and most importantly perhaps, its destination. Whether the driver is unflinching in his destinational certainty, (and therefore able to avoid such non-linear hazards as detours and lengthy detours) or uncertain, as long as he or she has control of the driving process the narrative objective will be safely achieved. Both affirmative and interrogative narrative demand control of movement. For the fugitive, the cop or the detective, all varieties of narrative hero are impossible to imagine without first access to, and secondly complete mastery of, the primary means of self-generated transportation, the automobile. A man deprived of such mastery is one condemned to be taken for a ride, condemned, in other words, to exist exclusively in the passive voice.
It had been almost a half-hour since J. had been reprimanded by the driving instructor. At this particular moment in time, he was feeling exhilarated. It was as if someone other than himself were driving...as if he were flying. At the same time, he knew he was driving smoothly and safely. J. didn't even wince when the instructor, having complimented him on his right-turns, began to talk like a crusty old-timer.
"You know, I've been teaching for pushing thirty years and on the basis of seeing how shaky you were yesterday, I should've told you to forget about coming back today. Yes sir, young man, I should have told you flat out you were wasting your time. But see, it's not so hard now, isn't it? Pretty well anyone can drive when you get right down to it."
J. smiled to himself. The old-timer meant well. He was trying to inform his pupil that he wasn't a deficient human being after all. Then, just as J. was about to remove his right foot from the accelerator pedal, in anticipation of the approaching light, he heard the nagging voice at his ear.: "Off the gas, J., off the gas."
J's face reddened. He was just about to do that. The instructor still didn't trust him. He still considered him to be "a case". He requested that the instructor stop jumping him; such tactics only made him nervous.
Now J. was tensed up and gripping the steering-wheel too tightly. The car was beginning to stand out in traffic. The instructor snarled at him: "I'm making you nervous?"
Non-driving men have one reference-point in common. They are all hopelessly urban. To be urban is to be overly refined.
The overly refined individual models himself after the ancient courtier. The behaviour of the courtier was characterized by effortlessness (spezzatura). Such a manner is obviously at odds with the practice of driving. Roads and freeways are hopelessly saturated with people intent on meeting deadlines. As the pressure escalates, the etiquette of driving ( which is a populist rather than elitist activity ) begins to disappear. Horns and signals become the dominant mode of communication. tempers flare, rules are violated and the concept of urbanity, of civilization, becomes absurd and archaic. A man who has cultivated a heightened sense of urbanity in a cafe or salon society has difficulty adjusting to the cruel impersonality of a crowd, especially when the crowd consists of people behind the steering-wheels of cars. Such a man is likely to feel inferior to this crowd and subsequently falls back on his elitist sense of superiority. He is by nature a serious candidate for becoming too nervous to function effortlessly in a tense situation. An ultra-civilized man can only maintain his character by not participating in activities in which he is liable to lose control.
During the second World War the myth about "nervous hysterical woman drivers" was shattered. There were women driving trucks and tanks in the armed forces and, in civilian society, the number of women in the work force rose dramatically because the husbands were off in the trenches. To get to work, the automobile is useful and frequently downright essential. That the accident rate did not accelerate rapidly testifies to the fact that woman drivers are no worse than their male counterparts. When men returned home at the end of the war, they found that many of their assumed roles had been usurped by women. Their discomfort was not only caused by the fact that they were now competing with women for jobs, or the role of the family breadwinner, or the use of the car in families which could only afford to own one car. Women were competing against men for money and power. Wives and girlfriends could no longer be assumed to be the passive beneficiaries of the man's work or enterprise. Now the wives and girlfriends had, in many relationships, become rivals to their men in the arena of capitalism.
J. and Ms. M. were the last remaining guests. Everyone else had managed to leave before becoming too impaired. J. himself had managed to stay sober because he knew he would be getting up early the next day. Ms. M., however, was quite another story. Tonight had been her occasion to celebrate and she had acted accordingly. Ms. M. was in absolutely no condition to drive home.
J. regretted never having learned to drive. He recalled his teenage fantasy of flying automobiles. He recalled his teenage fantasy of flying automobiles. He had imagined that by the time he had conquered his hyperactive nervousness, a scientific miracle would have made flying cars possible. Flying cars would solve the problems of traffic congestion by their capacity to pass either above or beneath the driver ahead. All those rules which had given his father such distress would be irrelevant. There would be no such thing as parallel driving, let alone parking. J. grimaced at the empty room. His childhood dreams had indeed been ridiculous. If anything, the competition for space among flying automobiles would probably be even more intense than in the case of the earthbound variety.
Ms. M was bidding him an abrupt goodnight and then heading off to her separate sleeping quarters. She was clearly angry that she couldn't possibly ask J to drive her home. Not only did he feel uselesshe felt powerless as well.
© 1987 Andrew James Paterson
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