Saturday, February 13, 2010

On the road again

No matter how hard I try, it's hard to show -- what do the savants call it? -- empathy (or is it sympathy?) toward my fellow New Jersey drivers, sitting there on Route 4 in their dirty cars that all look the same, Hondas, Toyotas, Caddies, Hyundais, Mercedes, Fords, Audis, Nissans, Beemers, even the hapless beggars still driving Chryslers can't tell them apart, cheap, expensive, makes no difference, silver, black, white, they're all just sitting there, leather, vinyl, hah, some status symbol, pouring noxious fumes into the gray-brown sky over Hackensack, even as some bug-eyed freak stares at his speedometer -- yup, Hans, it goes all the way up to 160 MPH -- such a sweet cheat, the illusion of effin freedom, these cars hauling all that human baggage of theirs: hypertension, sexual frustration, money worries, hormonal imbalances, ingested chemicals, gizmo addiction -- I passed a family of zombies the other day in a big black SUV featuring four video players so each little zombie could watch its own little zombie variety show -- disappointment, hunger, numbness.

They're carrying it all, satchels of scheise in the trunk, gym bags full of scat in the back seat, pouches of excrement in the glove compartment, old cups, free magazines, tissues, tissue paper, clips, staples, grocery flyers, pennies, nickels, dimes, stale donuts, crumbs, leaves, pebbles, iron filings, earrings, paper cups, straws, straw-wrappers, ribbons, twine, rubber bands, loose-leaf paper, crumpled envelopes, diapers, fillings, unidentifiable pieces of chipped black plastic, pens and pen caps that don't match, a tie, a scarf, sand, a baseball cap with an ugly stain on the visor, snot, earwax, dried blood, a hankie, coffee grounds, a piece of Corinthian leather fraying at the edge. Yapping on the phone -- hey, poot, you'd think there'd be a law against it -- texting their mates, looking at TV, making faces at the GPS, combing their hair, applying lipstick, scratching their nuts, eating a White Castle, studying for their next sales call, sprinkling salt on a bag of french fries, singing along with the stereo, trying to force the lid on a coffee cup, picking their noses, banging their foreheads against the steering wheel. Rapidly, continually, and hard. Looking in the rear-view mirror and blowing air kisses at themselves.

How many of us die each year out here? 35,000. Nah, it's more than that. Drunk, tired, mad, sloppy, distracted, suicidal. Ah! the human capacity to err and then -- oh shite! -- the death that comes with a snap of the neck, out past the shoulder and guard-rail, where the big trees loom. Then the crocodile tears and gnashing of teeth, the plastic crosses and teddy bears, the promises. Always the promises. I won't speed again, I won't drink again, I'll watch where I'm going, I'll get off the effin phone, I won't let the other guy get to me, even when he cuts me off, even when he passes me on the right, even when he tailgates or when he speeds up to make the light before it turns, I'll stay calm, plan my route ahead, check my tire pressure and make sure I get plenty of sleep the night before. I'll have my toll money ready, my E-Z Pass full, my headlamps and tail-lights working, I'll remember to drive defensively. I'll cradle my mortality like it was the Christ child.

There is no way out, there is no exit. The sun is hiding behind a clump of cold ugly clouds and the traffic is at a dead stop. I don't have a god to talk to any more, but I still believe that humans are capable of transcending the dead-weight of mundanity. It's rare, but it happens. Even so, I find myself resorting to the old forms of prayer. Oh Lord, please don't let me die on the road today. Please don't let me die on the road.

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