“You’re a good driver, PB,” my wife says one evening, as I guide our Jeep Grand Cherokee out of a highway thicket, getting to the right in time to pick up Interstate 84 when it splits near Danbury.
“Not good, careful.”
“Same difference,” she says, but what I meant was that I have no devilish skills. I’ve never been bold behind the wheel. Unlike many males, I never loved cars and even dreaded learning how to drive. Sitting in the backseat as a child, I watched with awe as my father sped up and passed cars, then switched lanes, into what seemed impossibly tight spaces. But he never took chances; he was a conservative, if that word means anything.
He taught me to drive, in fact, sparing me the dread of motoring around with an instructor and one of those billboard-like signs on top of the car, an indignity that seemed to me a price too high to pay. His most-repeated instructions: “Watch your interval” and “The left lane is the passing lane; people who pass on the right are asking for trouble.”
In 35 years of driving, I’ve somehow managed to avoid an accident. (Whenever I pass by one on the highway, I often think of the words of the late sportswriter Ralph Wiley, talking about boxing: "You can die in there.") I’ve had few adventures, though some trips were more memorable than others. By rights, expectant mothers give contradictory instructions—“Faster, please!” alternated with “Watch the bumps!” when I rushed my wife to Vassar Brothers Medical Center for her rapid-onset labor, silently hoping that, with my eroding night vision, I would not miss the exit. More often, the challenges are of a grinding nature. The Taconic Parkway, for instance, is a trial even in perfect weather, with its exits spaced far apart and no shoulder to ease the tension wrought by its narrow lanes and tight, hilly curves. Travel it at night, in rain and heavy fog, and you’re asking to get your purgatorial evaluation early. On a Saturday evening this past February, I was startled by patches where the fog’s blanket seemed to reach the ground, not revealing the salvific white line until what seemed the last possible moment. “Go as slow as you need,” I said aloud to an empty car, “watch for the white line.” I eased myself along with these words, squinting until it felt like spiders were crawling the corners of my eyes, and belatedly noticing that the pulsing strains of John Coltrane’s “The Drum Thing,” even at low volume, were not helpful.
If my wife had been with me on that trip, I would have gladly turned the wheel over to her, as I did once in Western Michigan, when we ran into Lake Effect snow. Within about 30 seconds, it seemed, whiteness engulfed the periphery around the car, and this time, looking for any sign of demarcation between lanes was unavailing. It seemed like we were passing through a cumulonimbus cloud.
“I’m going to kill us!” I blurted out, because I was driving blind, bracing for the stone wall that I imagined on the other side of the snow. “Find a way to pull over,” she said. “I can do this.” And she navigated us home. She told me later that it’s a trick of the eyes, a pointillist’s way of looking into the squall. If I ever learn how to do that, it will be in a simulator.
Only in my mid-twenties did I show anything like a driving flair, and then by necessity. Leaving my parents’ home in Sanibel, Florida, to catch a flight from Tampa—about two-and-a-half hours away—I took the wrong fork, realizing it after 20 minutes of zooming in that direction. With the slimmest chance of making it to the airport on time, I reached a speed of 89, the fastest I’ve ever recorded, slicing between cars in heavy traffic. I made the flight as they were taking away the boarding chute.
That young man’s cannonball run was a one-shot, but an echo of such recklessness lingers when I see an especially aggressive tailgater explode out of the highway emptiness, blaring his lights in my rear-view mirror, so close to my bumper he seems hitched to it. These guys—they’re usually guys—still irk me, with their motorized grievance, the way they use machines as instruments of their entitlement. Not even turning 50 has tempered my contempt for what they do next: swerve over to pass me on the right. So I move, too, cutting them off and forcing them back into the left lane, where they can pass according to my father's standard. I should let this go.
For the most part, though, I drive the way a control pitcher with a middling arsenal manages a ballgame, forestalling disaster and taking solace in what doesn’t happen: the runners who don’t reach base, the inning that doesn’t get away. For this middle-aged man who makes a living inside his head, driving is one of those few remaining physical spaces in which my fate might still hang on what mettle I can bring to the task. Traveling home at night on a winding, dark freeway, I’m in an existential zone. It’s as if all my choices, averaged together by the arbiters of such things, ride alongside. Out there, it's all headlights and shadows, hills and turns—and endings. For years, I’ve held the wheel with both hands.
Photo credit: Nicholas T