Alan Smithee

Reckless Driving


“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”
—a fine example of antanaclasis, usually misattributed to Groucho Marx

When I was almost 17, after the very arduous process of getting my license, my dad bought a Prius for himself and gave me his 2002 or 2005 Toyota Camry or Corolla. It was blue-gray.

I wasn’t really a car guy, and as such, I was usually loath to clean my windshield. It was always smeared in squashed bugs, which I periodically removed with a sweep of the wiper and an ever-delightful squirt of the accompanying cleaning fluid. I only ever realized how poorly I saw out of the windshield when I happened to do this. I was accustomed to seeing the world through a layer of grime.

I’d drive to my girlfriend’s house and, given her parents’ prudent wariness around me, head off to my car when we wanted to dry-hump. After a while, the windows would fog up and we’d find ourselves trapped in a box of our own exhalations. She’d tell me to roll down a window a little bit, but only a little, because, despite the discomfort, we valued the obscurity that the fogged windows provided. We performed our obscene rites only a few feet away from pedestrians, but the inside of the car felt like another dimension of space and time, more intimate than any bedroom.

Coming home from seeing her or coming home from work, I took to watching the secret activities of the other drivers, which usually just amounted to picking their noses or taking quick hits from bongs. Here we were on the freeway, in the most truly communal area of Los Angeles, and yet each of us partook of an almost masturbatory privacy amongst ourselves. Jonathan Franzen, in some essay, wrote that it’s stupid to say that privacy in the modern world has died; it’s more accurate to say that privacy has invaded the public realm.

I looked through the windshield as I would a pair of sunglasses, with a feeling of invulnerability.

* * *

Do you like what I’ve written so far? Does my style flow? Do the hints of the ideas I will later present make you want to continue down this road? Does it bother you that I’m asking this question? Maybe you already hate this, and now you hate it more. When you write something, you’re supposed to generate a “hook” in the beginning, and only present the unpleasant alien argument once the reader has committed him or herself to a relationship with the text in which the words seem his or her own. This paragraph is either a horrible intrusion or it’s the hook that will draw you in. I consider such a jarring break necessary only because this is an essay about a car crash. I experienced it in my gray-blue Toyota Corolla or Camry during an early afternoon in Spring 2009. I was 17 years old. I was on the I-110 freeway. It was raining lightly.

If the above paragraph “took you out of it,” then you can consider the worst over. You’ve already crashed. Now let’s get back on the road.

* * *

My driving instructor told me that my arms were stiff on the wheel, that I held it in a death grip. She told me, in her thick Armenian accent, to forget I was driving, and instead merely to look and focus on my intended destination. But I had to ask her to repeat the advice. I’d heard only the surface sounds of what she told me, and not the sense or meaning. Her accent was too thick, and I couldn’t listen past it.

At first I was always terrified behind the wheel. A car is a dangerous machine, and operating it was rife with terrors. What if, going 60 miles an hour, I mishandled the car? I feared the vehicle and refused to take any risks. But eventually, I lost my reluctance to drive faster than 50 miles on hour on the freeway. Of necessity I merged into the flow of traffic itself, and began to take risks nullified and rendered inappreciable by social consensus.

Even as I drove, I felt that there was a divorce between what I might want and what the car might do. But with time, this feeling disappeared. Soon, I noticed my car as little as I noticed the clothes on my body. The car wasn’t merely mine, but was me in fact. Like my own body, it responded directly to my reflexes. I no longer thought of my body operating the car from the inside, but as simply willing my car, like my legs, to go to one spot or another. And in fact I developed, as all drivers do, a basic kind of proprioception, which is defined as the body’s sense of the relative position of each of its parts. For this reason, I could with confidence pull into a tight parking space, knowing without having to see exactly how far it jutted out or how in danger it was of being scratched.

When I sometimes drove my friends’ cars, the experience was different. I became a novice again, not because I forgot how to drive, but because I remembered. Now I have to brake; now gas. Signal left; turn left. Removed from the blissful automatic, I had to adjust to a different dynamic, a demand for greater or lesser pressure on the pedal, sharper or wider turns of the wheel, and even a different set of eyes to see through—the placement of the mirrors and windows being of utmost importance.

Coming home at the end of the day, my mother would be on the computer, and she would often ask me to fix “something horrible” that had gone wrong, usually a pop up box or something like that. “You do everything so fast on there,” she’d say, as I closed the popup or changed some setting. I usually couldn’t explain how I solved her tech problem, because it was intuitive to me, the keyboard being an extension of my fingers, the monitor of my eyes.

* * *

Learning to read is like learning to drive. I’ve heard the countryside likened to prose, and poetry to the city. The city, like a poem, is a careful structure, with affinities of meaning in impossibly close proximity. And the countryside is a wide expanse, perhaps slightly boring, but with a heart-leapingly infinite horizon. I hope to invest this essay or story with qualities of both, like the city it’s set in, Los Angeles, Los Angeles being a city written in prose.

Language is a kind of machinery, and one learns to read it in much the same way one learns to drive a car. Children learning to read begin with phonics, sounding out each letter. Later, that process is subsumed and relegated to the unconscious, and the reading becomes a natural flow. Reading transports us farther than cars do. As our eyes move from line to line, the text, the vehicle for our transport, becomes invisible, and we begin only to see the world it conjures. With good writing, this can go on forever, but as soon as one is struck by the awkwardness of a phrase or the frailty of a grammatical construct, the world that the reader has abstracted from the text crumbles, crashes, burns: the text is seen for what it is, mere machinery. For young readers, like young drivers, consciousness of the machinery is omnipresent and burdensome: every word must be sounded out: phonetics obscures representation. For young readers the text is always visible, but with time this only occurs when the writing is ugly.

* * *

At the time of the accident, I’d had my license for only a few months, and I was finally beginning to feel comfortable on the road, a comfort that predictably led to impulsivity and excess. Before this comfort developed, however, I believed that despite my lack of skill, I had an advantage more experienced—more automatic—drivers didn’t have: I was always conscious of driving. In those first weeks of learning, nothing went by that I didn’t notice. The fear was unbearable, certainly, but an accident was out of question. Noting my beads of sweat, older drivers would tell me that driving would soon become thoughtless and automatic, and they were right. The increased ease of driving gave my mind opportunities to wander, so that at a certain point I wasn’t aware at all of the process of getting from Point A to Point B. I developed a blind spot: not a spatial blind spot, but a temporal one.

I no longer attributed such significance to every journey. Anything habitual, in memory, soon takes on the characteristics of a film montage. Five or six images flitting across one’s mental screen is enough to conjure up an entire epoch. You remember clearly your first few times with a friend or lover, but after you’ve been acclimatized to the person, the “good times” montage takes precedence over specific memories. Movies don’t use montages to represent outlying disruptive events, but rather spans of time so habitual or inevitable that the component details become irrelevant. When one is no longer so painfully conscious of the difference between this moment and the next, life can become a montage.

* * *

One day, the montage ended, and the car crash occurred (what is a story? the end of a montage). It was raining lightly. I was late for work. I stayed in bed a little longer than necessarily, cherishing a final cigarette. I didn’t want to go to work. At work, I’d have to sit on the computer all day, promoting and marketing horrible YouTube videos by abusing social networking websites. I didn’t even want to see my girlfriend, who lived across the street from my office. We’d been together for a year at this point, and I already felt like our habits together were predictable. When I saw her, I was no longer startled by her beauty. I looked into her eyes and saw the person I knew, the person I had been creating for the past year. And I was bored.

What was the beauty I saw in her? There were times when she upset me and when I thought, “I don’t know her. I don’t love her.” And then I’d think of the story of Pygmalion, how he, rejecting the company of common women, chose instead to create a statue of his ideal, which he subsequently fell in love with, fondled, fucked, until Aphrodite granted his wish and brought the statue to life. It didn’t matter that the object of his love was inanimate, as long as it served as a receptacle for his own invented love. I wondered if perhaps my girlfriend, for me, was in a sense inanimate, and if my love for her was private, solipsistic, originating not in her but in myself, but only visible when I looked through her eyes—past her—to see it.

Studies designed to reveal what facial beauty consists of give us the answer: normalcy. When a dozen faces are averaged through a computer program and processed into one single face, the result is pleasing and lovely. A beautiful face is one robbed of individuality. Where, then, is beauty’s sweet sting—why is it not mundane? The lack of surprising and therefore noticeable features on a beautiful face makes it function like well-written text: it becomes invisible, and, in doing so, gives rise to a deeper and more abstract impression. The ugly have traditionally been associated with evil, and the beautiful with virtue, because a perfect mask, in its transparency, reveals the soul behind it. In a contest of empathy, the beautiful are advantaged simply because they more visibly wear their souls. Essentially, the beautiful are read, like text, and become ideas, and the ugly are doomed to being perceived as mere bodies.

No, I didn’t want to see my girlfriend today, I thought, driving on the I-110. It had started to rain again, lighter than before. I wanted to get to work quickly, finish quickly, go home quickly, sleep quickly, and have it be the next day already. I wanted all of these things to happen to their fullness, but without my presence. I wanted them to happen in the same mindless automatic way as my driving now happened, so that I could live my happy life without recourse to the consciousness or pain or boredom or fear that I necessarily experienced while living it. I wanted to live in the 3rd person, watching a montage.

Of course, had the crash not occurred, I wouldn’t have remembered these details prior to the event. The day would have been incorporated into my unbroken montage, only serving to lend a little more weight to a composite image of all of my before-work mornings.

But the crash did occur.

In the eyes of the law, the accident was my fault, though the story I emphatically told my friends was that it was out of my control. After any accident, blaming is as crucial to peace of mind as it is ultimately meaningless. My actions and the actions of the driver in front of me resulted in the accident, so in a way we were the cause, but this role is difficult to truly claim and possess, since it was the effect we felt. The ubiquitous use of the word “accident” to refer to car crashes of all kinds hints at the difficulty of mentally placing an accident into the stable scheme of cause and effect. Cause and effect occur simultaneously, giving the impression of causelessness: accidents are inevitable and violently lacking in context, written into stone before they’ve even occurred. My bruisy memory of the event reflects this in its spareness. My sole thought was: “This is now happening.”

What I experienced was not a near-death experience, but an identity crisis. Drivers learn to incorporate their vehicles into their body schemata so that the vehicle is temporarily part of the self. This is necessary: the car must react to reflexes without hesitation. Just as there is no gap between willing our hands to open and the opening itself, a car becomes an extension of the driver’s will, a part of the driver’s body. During loss of control, this flow between will and vehicle is disrupted. It is a failure of body, a confusion of self on par with finding one’s legs moving of their own accord. It provokes the question, “What is me?” In the brief second before impact, the car is jarringly reduced from part of the self to mere machinery. We are at the mercy of ourselves, and we wake up in a foreign world, crashed.

* * *

Some time after the incident, I found myself filling out paperwork at the junkyard where the authorities were keeping my wreck of a car. My stepmom had driven me there. Afterwards, we were invited to inspect the remains and remove any personal belongings that might still be inside.

My step-mom and I approached the car. I had no recollection of what the car looked like immediately after the accident. The only thing I remembered was that a green fluid I’d never seen before, almost like a body fluid, had been dribbling out of some unknown part of the car’s damaged organs. But now it was dry: a crunchy little corpse. The back of the car was still intact. We opened the trunk. Inside, I had a few changes of clothes and some drafts of a research paper I’d been writing for school. I sat down in the driver’s seat and my stepmom in the passenger’s. We opened the glove compartment. Inside, I had some CDs, some books.

I realized that a mixtape CD that my girlfriend had given me for my 17th birthday was still in the CD player. Obviously, we couldn’t turn the car on, but I was determined to get it. Since I was resigned to the loss of the CD player as well as the car, I decided to use a screwdriver to pry open its mouth. Peering in, I was able to see the golden rim of the CD, but I found it impossible to break open the CD player without simultaneously destroying the CD.

Out of frustration, I stabbed the dashboard with the screwdriver. “What are you doing!” said my stepmom. I told her what I was doing. She at first balked, but as I continued to scratch and stab at the dashboard, she got kind of into it herself. She started to tear up the upholstery. I got out of the car and, using a metal rod I found on the ground, smashed one of the windows. We laughed, bonded.

The owner of the junkyard approached us on rapid little feet to tell us that the car was no longer our property, and, as such, we had no right to do what we were doing. Indignant, I shouted some obscenity at him. I insisted on my right to do anything to the car that I might want, including vandalism. He walked away, muttering something about calling the police. We smashed it up a little more, but our steam was gone now, and so we just stopped, walked back to my stepmom’s car, and drove off, remembering but choosing not to take any of my personal effects.

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