What to Do?
I set out to write this story as a cautionary tale about the bad roads we were all headed down and that we needed to take better stock of ourselves and how we used our automobiles as weapons and left our well being up to fate. That was my initial motivation. And while that is still the story I have written, it occurred to me as I kept revising this story that we all need to be thinking with greater clarity about how we treat each other.
The original story began in the form of a road trip, a trip made in Queens to pick up my partner, Suzanne, after she finished work on a Friday night and an attempt to equate that experience with a trip we made to Atlantic City earlier in the same week. How we draw equivalencies and make approximations of experiences is what a story teller must always figure out how to do—that is his or her main job. Once those choices are made, the story then has to follow some kind of expected format otherwise it feels like an arbitrary collection of events that ends up feeling worthless.
Let’s see if this set of events can work together.
On the first leg of the trip, on the night in question, the weather was a mix of fog and an intermittent misty rain. The fog came in with the dusk and settled on Queens Boulevard along with a drizzle, for it was more than mist; it came and went; intense one moment and then just a nuisance. It made the road tricky to drive as it became slick and parts of it were not immediately visible. I decided the wise thing to do was to be more cautious and to slow down and to even be more courteous to my fellow drivers. As I kept saying to myself, we are all in this together.
The longest part of the drive was along Queens Boulevard, where there were no incidents to report. However, once I turned onto 34th Avenue, weird things began to happen. First a young woman decided to jump off the curb and place herself in the road in front of my oncoming car. Fortunately, no one was behind me as I slammed on the brakes. I looked at her and she peered back at me. I confess, I was stunned and angry and frightened. I watched her walk the rest of the way across the street, taking her own sweet time. I felt that she was taunting me while I watched her red hair swing back and forth across her back, in time to her rounded rump swinging in her tight jeans. She looked back over her shoulder at me and a nasty look seeped across her sweet face. Her decision to jump out at me seemed completely premeditated. Then she had stood still in the middle of the road when I hit my brakes. I had no idea what she was thinking. As I continued to drive down the street, too easily I called out to her, you b*tch. The words slipped out of my mouth and I did not like the way it made me feel. Life is too short to get angry at stupid young people looking to jerk my chain.
I continued driving and within a block of where Suzanne waited for me, I sat at a long red light. A line of cars waited at the intersection. On my right, a parking lot entry and exit also had a line of cars waiting to get out and I let many of them pass in front of me. The light ahead was still red. I had to wait anyway, so decided to retain my more compassionate manner after the encounter with the young redhead. I wanted to be on a good footing with the night. Then the light turned green, the traffic began to move forward and so did I. However, a car bulldozed its way in front of me. The driver, a young man, must have assumed that he too should be allowed out of the lot and that I should wait for him as well. He really was incredibly insistent that I get out of his way, which almost caused him to ram the front of my car. Once again, I lost patience with a stupid person. I honked my horn at him. As he sped in front of me, he looked at me as if he wanted to kill me and then did the next best thing, he gave me the finger. He then tore down the road to race through a red light in order to make an illegal left turn. Once again startled by the anger and nastiness shoved into my face, all I could think was he had Rhode Island license plates on his car and I had thought people from that state were more polite.
Further shaken, I picked up Suzanne and we decided to drive to Flushing Meadow Park in order to sign up for the new swimming pool. Never having driven there, but equipped with a GPS to help us find the way, I still felt nervous about the route. To me, the streets and highways in Queens are among the most mysterious I have ever driven. You just really cannot tell where the streets end and the highways begin. We drove slowly, followed the GPS’s directions as best we could in order to get onto the Grand Central in order to get onto the Van Wyck so that we could get onto the LIE. Make sense to you? Didn’t make sense to us either but that is what we had to do.
As we drove onto the ramp leading onto the Grand Central, a car in front of us stopped, just stopped and the car in the lane next to him stopped as well. At first, I didn’t know what was going on. We were on the entry ramp, there was no way to get around the two stopped cars and there were many cars behind us. My thought was, how long before someone plows into all of us? But what at first I had assumed was a cab driver looking for directions quickly revealed itself to be a yelling match between two drivers who had lost all sense of place. They refused to move and yet when they did move, they would only move a couple of feet and stop again. It was as if they were having second, third and fourth thoughts about what could be said to make the other one even angrier. Eventually, with many starts and stops, they headed off into the night, thankfully, and we continued to drive along the multiple freeways in order to reach our destination. Once we arrived at the new facility, nothing worked. The DSL line did not work so we could not get our membership cards and the elevators did not work either. All this work had gotten us so close but not to our final objective. The futility of it made us laugh.
This was not the end of the bad behavior we saw on the road that night but it was the worst of it. It made me realize that for many people, their cars are weapons. This was ratified while driving the last couple of miles home on the Jackie Robinson where a huge double lane of glass still littered the roadway. Whatever number of cars had been involved in that accident, someone had reaped the ultimate reward of their bad behavior and I was just grateful that we were making it home safely.
I fell asleep shortly after we got home. The wear and tear on my emotions had been too much. A nightmare awakened me. In my dream, someone had damaged my car while I sat in a diner because they didn’t like the way I had parked. The impotence of my rage when I woke up made me realize how vulnerable we are in a car. For a while I thought we would not use the car anymore in the city, just on vacations.
This thought takes me back to the Atlantic City part of my story. Neither Suzanne nor I had ever been there. I was curious to see it and hung tightly to a fantasy of winning enough money while there that we could forget about working any more. We would win big enough to just stay on the road for as long as we wanted to. Yet, once we arrived in Atlantic City, I could not wait to leave.
Maybe it is a place you are not meant to see in daylight. But the emptiness of the streets, the signs for selling your gold, getting a cheap room, the whole circus atmosphere at the Tropicana made me feel like we had walked into the reverse mirror image of what Wall Street means to stock brokers. They dress up the place with high end stores that at that time of day were empty. No one was shopping. The guy walking the floor in Brooks Brothers looked like he should be selling cigars in a kiosk. His suit could not cover his paunch. We had to walk down endless corridors with signs urging us to buy, buy, while all we wanted was to find the casino. Everything on display was useless and overpriced.
When we found the casino, all I saw were people sitting around looking lonely and bored. In front of them the flashing machines into which they had just dumped their hard earned money seemed unwilling to grant them their dreams. If I had had the courage to ask any of them what it was they were going to do with the money they won, I am not certain they could have told me. It looked like they were obsessed to make those whizzing, whirling, wanging machines give them something no one else had given them.
I probably could go on and on about the lost souls sitting in the casino. I was in such a rush to leave that I may be overstating the case and there may have been many who were having fun, who saw gambling for what it was—a nice thing to do, to get out of the house, to know you will lose a little money but be with friends and have some laughs. But that more fun-loving crowd was not there when I was there.
That is the context for how I began to interpret the dark streets where drivers are willing to risk their lives along with the lives of countless strangers. That was how I began to see the neighborhoods where young people are so confused that nothing seems to excite them but to tempt fate. That was how it appeared to me when the people sitting on stools in the casino stared blankly at the wheezing machines hoping to leave with what they did not walk in with. These patterns of despair manifested themselves everywhere.