"Okay, Iíll get it," I say, and in one motion flick the cell phone closed and drop it into the cup holder. Marsha had said we were out of gin, and what I donít need when I get through with this god-awful five-oíclock commute is to be without my "turn it all off martini." Getting in and out of the mall at this time of day isnít fun, but the alternative seems intolerable. There has to be a better way to live!
At the next exit I turn south on the two-lane, thinking that the easiest way into the mall is through the back entrance. Traffic is solid in both lanes, but thereís a short section of left-turn lane at the back entrance. I can see from a quarter mile off that there are cars there lined up ahead of me, waiting to turn into the mall. I pull the Buick into the turn lane behind the waiting line. Oncoming traffic is moving fast, but nobody wants to stop and let the left-turning cars through.
One night at this entrance, I saw an oncoming car stop to let a few cars make their turn, and the car behind him didnít even slow down, just went onto the shoulder and around him, and all the cars behind simply followed, a line of sheep going around an obstacle at fifty miles an hour without pausing. There was no way the waiting cars could make their turn, and finally the Good Samaritan moved on, screeching his tires as he tried to get up to the speed of the other cars. The blip in the traffic flow quickly disappeared, and the left-turn cars still sat there waiting for their chance.
At last there is a little space in the oncoming line of cars, and two waiting cars turn simultaneously, getting across the road and into the driveway together, but at least getting there. I move up two car lengths. Three cars are still ahead of me, and oncoming traffic is solid as far as I can see. I turn on the radio and try to relax. At least sitting here is better than sitting in a jam-up on the freeway. Through my right-hand mirror I can see that the flow is just as solid in my direction. An announcer is interviewing somebody in the Middle East about another incident where pent-up rage had exploded. Four people dead. Life is tough all over.
The car at the head of my line suddenly starts up and swerves left through a tiny break in the traffic. I canít tell if the squeal of tires is from him or from the oncoming car, which noses down to avoid smashing into him. In a moment, it is over, and I have two cars ahead of me. The three of us inch forward as though attached to each other by a string. I think of my daily ordeal, fighting traffic for three-quarters of an hour each way to work and home again. "The price we pay," I remind myself, and push a button on the radio to find some music. There is none. Itís all news, because this is rush hour, and people want to hear whatís going on in the rest of the world during this dead-time in their own lives. The time when you try not to think about what youíre doing, but plan your day or think about your kids or your lawn or your 401-K.
Rush hour is a jungle chase, mostly mindless, requiring just enough attention to keep from getting run over. Those African animal documentaries that show antelopes grazing with a lion lying among themóthatís what this is like. Everybody knows that itís a life-and-death thing here, and we keep one eye on the lion as we eat our grass. The least hint of movement in his still body, and weíre outta here. At seventy miles an hour, your attention sort of de-focuses so you can watch everything at the same time, alert for the slightest change, ready to brake or swerve or change lanes to avoid the next big crunch. You pass disabled cars without slowing down, but watching in case somebody opens their door on the traffic side. A patrol car will be along in a minute. In your mirror you glance at their four-way blinkers getting smaller behind you. Be thankful itís not you.
Here, sitting between two lines of speeding cars, I feel the Buick sway as they pass. I wish another car would pull in behind me to give me a little cushion in case a somebody sees the wide spot in the road and thinks he can use it to pass the car ahead of him. No matter how solid the line of cars ahead, some yahoo always has to take every opportunity to advance his place in line. At sixty miles per hour, one car length gets him home a quarter of a second earlier. To him, this isnít a left-turn lane, itís a potential passing lane.
The first waiting car turns left through a sudden hundred-foot break in the oncoming line. Okay, itís almost time to play chicken. Iím impatient when the car ahead of me doesnít move up immediately to the turn point. I lean forward in the seat and watch the oncoming traffic intently. Itís hard to see gaps in the line up ahead until they are right here. Iím playing the part of the guy ahead of me, watching for that sudden gap so I can floorboard it and make the turn. "Címon! Get ready!"
The guy ahead suddenly moves, and I move with him. Iím going through with him, turning sooner like that guy did before, and sort out our positions after the move, letting him into the driveway before meóafter all, I like to think Iím a polite driver. Iím not one of those dog-eat-dog yahoos.
But he stops. He chickens out without turning, and I stamp on my brake pedal. Our bumpers kiss ever-so-gently. "OH, SHIT!" I hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand.
Well, letís be civilized. Let the adrenalin stop pumping before we do anything else. I put the Buick in park and open the door carefully, watching the oncoming cars for somebody too close to my lane. Iím not very steady. The other guy gets out, too, and walks back. I grin an apology. Together we look at the point of impact. A bit of rubbed paint on my bumper, probably made when the front of my car came back up after I stopped. There doesnít seem to be a mark on his bumper. He doesnít say anything, just turns and gets back in his car. I can feel my face flush. My heart is still pounding and my knees are wobbly as I get into my car. I need to take a moment before I think any more about moving. Thereís nobody behind me waiting. I close my eyes and breathe.
Hmmm. Itís suddenly quiet. Confused, I open my eyes. Iím sitting in my car in the middle of a highway. Thereís nobody in front of me and nobody behind me. Occasionally, a car passes me in either lane. I must have gone to sleep or something. I have a moment of panicówhatís with me?
Well, Iíd better get off the road. Thereís plenty of time to make my turn in the large gaps in oncoming traffic. My arm feels strangely heavy as I shift into drive. I pull into the mall parking lot and stop again. I look at my watch, but the time doesnít register in my brain. I open the door and get out of the car. My legs feel cramped from the long drive, so I pace off a few steps and shake each foot. I have a sense of unreality, and have to think hard to remember why Iím here. How could I have gone to sleep in the middle of the highway?
Getting back into the Buick, I drive around to the liquor store.
Iím going to need that drink when I get home.
April 18, 2003