*The massive, menacing black late model SUV stalking a parking lot under the L.A. afternoon sun was no doubt equipped with everything–GPS, digital stereo, cable TV, radar to detect incoming surface-to-air missiles–everything but a driver with patience.
The owner of a powder blue VW couldn’t vacate her parking space fast enough: the driver of the black SUV–smoky tinted glass allowed only an indistinguishable, sinister profile–was on the horn for so long that at one point it seemed entirely conceivable that they’d fallen unconscious and lay slumped on the steering wheel.
When the SUV finally pulled into the spot, curious pedestrians on the sidewalk slowed their gait to see who would emerge from Darth Vader’s helmet on wheels. Conan the Barbarian turned out to be a graying, diminutive middle-aged blonde in spiritual chic and yoga mat in tow, on her way to the afternoon session above the 31 Flavors to flex her inner Peace and Love. Which apparently, at least behind the wheel of an automobile, is no match for her inner bitch.
“Clothes,” goes the time-honored adage, “make the man.” “We are what we eat,” insists another maxim. “Another day, another dollar.” I’m adding yet another: We drive who we are.
It’s true. For the most part, all of us drives according to our personality. Operating an automobile on a public thoroughfare will, without fail, conjure up the real you.
Sure, sitting in your living room, you could be the coolest, most loving person ever. However, if you are short on courtesy, it’ll only take a traffic jam for this to be known. If you’re prone to impatience, in a snap, you could lose it at the intersection with a four-way stop sign.
And if not-so deep down inside you’re one selfish, ornery so and so, then you simply can’t help it–cutting people off is in your DNA. None of us, whatever our level of sanity, stops being who we are, no matter what we do. Thus, one way or another, driving exposes us all for who we are capable of being.
It doesn’t help our collective psyche that culturally the act of driving has so much put on it. One of modern mankind’s rites of passage, driving signifies independence, freedom. Which explains why in some parts of the world it is illegal for women to drive.
For a boy, learning to drive is an exhilarating landmark toward manhood. When I was 15 I didn’t want Daddy to teach me about the Birds and the Bees, I wanted him to teach me to drive. He tried a few times, but my nervousness would in turn make him nervous and he’d yell at me, so I stopped going with him. Ultimately I learned to drive through teenage friends who’d allow me to clock time behind the wheel of their own beat-up, primer-riddled pride and joy or the stately sedans of their unsuspecting parents.
No matter how you learn, as your driving skills improve, you instinctively bring to the practice your core persona. For me that meant applying the common courtesies mama taught her children. I soon discovered driving to be an anomalous meditation conflicted: you must be alert, yet calm. You have to drive for yourself, yet anticipate the next move of the other guy.
Driving in the 21st century means consciously being in the moment despite the treasured distractions to which we are addicted–our music (the louder and funkier the beat, the faster we drive), our cell phones, texting, Big Gulp, babies in the back seat, the TV, video games and anything else we might attempt to do while driving a car.
Add the unremitting notion that society at large is more preoccupied, ruder and more mean-spirited–CRAZIER–than ever before, and navigating the modern roadway becomes a special kind of challenge. The anxious perpetually tailgate; the indecisive lose it during freeway lane changes; those running to or away from something in their minds continually speed, and absolutely no one uses their turn signal.
How a person drives is so self-revealing that online daters could actually forgo the usual first-time meeting at the local Starbucks. Simply cut to the chase and let them take you for a ride. If Prince Charming or the woman of your dreams constantly swears and whines about the traffic, they could be a latent asshole. Or a serial killer. In which case, they may never find your body, but my point will have been made: people drive who they are.
Depending on the day and our emotions, even us drivers who see ourselves as guardians of highway stability can lose our grip. Impulsively, I once tried to catch up with a late model BMW sporting I LOVE LENNON plates. I wanted to inform the driver that the guy who wrote “Imagine” probably would not have cut that guy off three blocks back. Then again, who knows? John Lennon wrote all kinds of songs.
The genius who daydreams halfway through the left-turn-on-arrow-only light, then suddenly awakens and speeds away? I fantasize catching up to that person, dragging them from their vehicle and delivering them to the angry mob they left to languish through another light cycle. And I believe in my heart of hearts that there is a special VIP lounge in hell for drivers who refuse to yield to fire and medical emergency vehicles.
However, just when I think the world has dislodged itself from its axis, something happens to alter my opinion. Take the scene I witnessed the other day.
There’d been a violent collision. Motorists had pulled over to aid and comfort the injured. A man en route to his physical therapy appointment stood in the middle of the intersection, on crutches no less, directing four-way traffic like a seasoned traffic cop. Drivers adhered to his directions, many of them yelling out their appreciation and encouragement.
It was a heartwarming exhibition of compassion and respect for humanity right out of a corny Hallmark movie, a Technicolor reminder that there are plenty of wonderful people out there who have not allowed the world to drive them mad.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].