I almost died today. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I was almost in a head-on collision today that could have resulted in death, dismemberment or an overwhelming sense of WTF. I live in an isolated area of Oklahoma City called The Village. Yes, just like that fictional place in the old TV show ‘The Prisoner’. It’s kind of a gulag without the Siberian cold and I’m sure our mayor wears a badge that says No 2 and his aides ride some weird teeter-totter thing while tracking our every movement. Taxes are high, law enforcement is on the zealous side (don’t dare park more than a few inches from the curb) and we live in a temporal anomaly. I know this is true because when I get in the car the radio is set on the same station, playing the same music, hosted by the same disk jockey that I listened to in high school. And high school was a long, long time ago. We have no public transportation because of the crappy relationship we have with Oklahoma City. We don’t even have sidewalks. So everybody drives. The primary problem is the usual one of greed. But, as always, I digress.
The main street to the north of the house is Hefner Road. A four-lane thoroughfare that is in a perpetual state of repair. (I believe the name of the prime contractor for the work is Sisyphus Construction because no sooner is one end repaved than they start tearing up the other). I was headed east in the left-hand lane on my way to wash last week’s rainy mud off the car. I was almost to the post office when I see a car headed the wrong direction in my lane. The speed limit is 35 so we were approaching each other at a rather brisk pace. At first I couldn’t see anyone at the wheel of the Cadillac. That only served to ratchet up my anxiety level another notch or three. I slowed down and as we came to within 150 feet or so of each other I could see the driver was a little old lady. I don’t mean to express sizeism, ageism, sexism or any other ism for that matter. I’m merely describing what I saw. She was indeed little. I could only see the top of her head. Picture the scene from ‘Ferris Bueller’ when Tom Bueller, the dad, is driving behind the LOL who is swerving all over the road. That was her. She was old. Older than me which is pretty damned old. And I will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is indeed a lady. After all, she did have her turn signal on which in of itself is the exception rather than the rule around here. She came to a stop at the entrance to the post office. (I believe you have to be over 50 to use this post office. I’ve never seen a young person in there). I came to a stop a few feet in front of her and held out my hands in the international gesture of ‘Do you have the slightest idea how fucking stupid you are?’ She extended her hand over the dash and gave me a little wave and turned into the parking lot (that, I might add, is apparently reserved for Cadillacs and Lincolns). I survived but barely.
This brings me to the major complaint I have about living here; the way people drive. I’ve driven in a lot of scary places, Rome, Naples, Madrid, the German Autobahn, a goat path of a road through the Swiss Alps, a muddy track in driving rain somewhere in Baja , etc, etc. But I have to say the people around here scare the crap out of me with their driving. They don’t drive fast. They just drive as if they’ve been deprived of any cognitive ability once they take the wheel. If you don’t pay attention you will have an accident. I have no idea how they avoid each other. Probably for the same reason zombies don’t eat other zombies. Driving to the supermarket can be so frustrating I try to go when everyone else is working or having their lobotomies touched up. But that’s almost impossible. Once you get past rush hour (I use that term only to give you a sense of the time of day. Nobody rushes anywhere here and bumper-to-bumper traffic is as rare as a windless day here in Oklahoma) the senior crowd is in a mad dash to get to IHOP while the grease is still fresh on the grill. By mad dash I mean they sometimes actually drive the speed limit instead of 10 mph under. I can bitch about seniors because I do know the secret AARP handshake and password and I received the ‘Elder Mark’ when I reached 60 (didn’t realize how much that would hurt).
You may think I’m exaggerating but I know what of I speak of (dangled on purpose for effect). I got my license here when I was sixteen. Two weeks later I got one of only two moving violations I’ve received in my 44 years of driving. One half block from my house (which I might add is just a few blocks from where I currently reside) I burned rubber at a stop sign. I didn’t see the Village Police sergeant standing beside his car in the school parking lot just up the block. He gestured for me to join him. Exacerbating my embarrassment was the fact he didn’t even have to get in the car, lights blazing and sirens blaring to chase me down. I drove sheepishly over to him and rolled down my window. I’ll never forget what he said, ‘That may be the stupidest thing I’ll see today. Didn’t you see me standing here?’ Of course I had to say no which made me feel ever dumber. I got a ten-dollar ticket for negligent driving a copy of which would be mailed to me. I sat on my front porch for a week waiting to get the envelope so my parents wouldn’t get their hands on it. The only other moving violation I received was in Italy. I turned in front of a car that didn’t have his lights on at night. The polizia gave me the ticket. The ticket was 500 lire (about 86 cents at the time). Payable to the officer. I’m sure he just pocketed my money and threw the ticket away.
So I did learn to steer a car, parallel park and obey traffic signs right here in The Village. But I learned to drive in Italy. Really drive. Sometimes it was too fast and way too reckless but that’s how everyone drove. I had to adapt or turn in my keys. I learned to negotiate traffic circles, curse in Italian, gesticulate emphatically when someone cut me off and how to fly through traffic. The last I learned from a business partner of mine. He was a nice fellow. A family man. But he was a true Jekyll and Hyde. Behind the wheel he transformed into a raging lunatic. I remember quite clearly the first time I rode with him. We had to go into Turin for client visits and the train wasn’t an option. We had a trunk full of 25 and 50 megabyte disk packs. Huge in size and small in capacity compared to what’s available today of course.
The man drove fast and didn’t like to slow down let alone stop. He would pass on the left. He would pass on the shoulder. It was all the same to him. A red light meant stand on the horn and drive on, daring those with a green light to challenge him. All the while he would curse in Piemontese dialect. I learned every conceivable curse word in that single trip. As we approached the outskirts of the city the traffic slowed and this only enraged him even more. The main thoroughfare in Turn is divided in the middle by parallel rail tracks for the tram. This is lined on either side with a walkway and trees. We were stopped in traffic when he suddenly turns the car to the left, drives over the sidewalk, squeezes between two trees and onto the rails. And he wasn’t going slowly. Every few feet we’d hit the ties and my butt would leave the seat. We did this for about a block when ahead I noticed a cautionary sign on the walkway to my right. There were workers digging a trench. The trench went under the tracks leaving a gap of about four feet. I would no doubt have said ‘Oh, shit!’ had I not lost the ability to speak when we’d started our rail trip. Stop? Slow down? Nope. If anything he sped up which is probably why we shot across the gap and made it to the other side. The car did a double thump as we bottomed out on the rails but we made it. A half block later he cut back to the street having passed a couple hundred stalled vehicles and we went about our business.
I use that example because in spite of all that and a thousand other incidents in my ten years of driving in Europe, the drivers here still scare me more than anything that I experienced over there. Maybe it’s because I’m older but I doubt it. This is the most frustrating place I’ve ever had to negotiate behind the wheel. But I deal with it. Most days I can even stay sober. Most days.