& Other Delusions of a Free-lance Writer

Chapter 3: Car Trouble

THUS IT WAS a few months later that I headed off to Oakland to catch the train to San Diego, where my daughter had been going to school, and to privately celebrate her graduation with her. (Yes, her mother had a field day with the fact that I did not attend graduation exercises!)

Since I had no further assignments in this world--and no reason to believe that any were forthcoming--I decided to play a game with myself: I was on assignment with CNS News, California’s most powerful news conglomerate. I was to discover the truth about California by taking the train from Oakland to San Diego. If I discovered the truth I got paid a dollar; if not, I got beaten up and thrown in the river. What a deal!

I didn’t know if the old VW would make it to Oakland. I had made two trips to Santa Clara while working on the article, and they had taxed it to the limit. It had serious problems, but I was willing to chance it to redeem myself a little.

The biggest problem with the car was the brakes. They required pumping. Maybe you don’t have to pump with your car. Let me explain. When there is an air bubble somewhere in a hydraulic system, then pumping is required to build up sufficient pressure to exert any force. That’s because the first few pumps are spent compressing the air bubble. Hopefully you don’t have a bubble in your system.

But the situation was actually worse than that. Sometimes the pedal got stuck down--there was dirt in the pivot bolt from driving out in the woods--and that is a catastrophe if your brakes need to be pumped. Thus I had tied a rope to the brake pedal that allowed me to pull the pedal back up in the event that it stuck to the floor, which was pretty frequent.

Now with such a disabled car, alertness is essential. Coffee for the driver is as essential as gasoline for the engine. You know those charts used to show student drivers required stopping distances for various speeds? And that suggest the dangers of tailgating? Well, multiply them all by about three if you must pump. Needless to say, you must maintain considerable extra distance at all times; and you must watch carefully--oh, so carefully!--for other motorists, keeping in mind that they have brakes and assume you do too. For practical purposes in the current recessionary economy, there really needs be a second or alternative driving manual for those with disabled cars, with sections on how to get from point A to point B without brakes; or how to get from point C to point D with a burned out clutch; or night driving without lights. But of course there is not such a useful book. And if there were, I’m sure that a conservative citizens’ group would form to ban it. Anyway, driving my car is not a relaxing experience these days, except perhaps out in the country. On the freeway or in the city it is nerve-racking; you are on edge at all times.

Now as the train leaves Oakland at 7:30 in the morning, I drove down the night before to my son’s apartment in San Francisco--he’s a student at San Francisco State University--and hung out there till five in the morning talking with his house-mate from Syria about jazz, which he liked, and the Persian Gulf war, which he had some doubts about. Though straight, my son works in one of San Francisco’s Teddy bars (young gay guy with old gay "Teddy" partner) and did not make it in till about three in the morning with his girl friend. Not your average job, but in San Francisco that’s employment. My son enjoys character--he used to do cartoons--and the private club that hangs no sign outside is full of character. Character on top of character, and character within character--a richly layered confection of persona, to hear him talk about it.

At five in the morning my son fixed coffee strong enough to exterminate most conservative citizens’ groups, and I headed for Oakland.

Now it’s a straight path into San Francisco and my son’s place in the Sunset District if you’re coming from the north, which I was: straight across the Golden Gate Bridge, then straight down 19th Avenue till you get to Sloat, then turn right and straight out to the Great Highway and the beach. The only hang-up to the disabled motorist is the toll stop on the Golden Gate--you need brakes to stop and pay--and maybe the fog if you’ve got windshield wiper problems. Not insurmountable problems, however. Getting across the city and over to Oakland is a little more difficult. In the manual on driving the disabled vehicle, there really ought to be a whole chapter on that. But I figured at five in the morning it’s not going to be too awful getting over to the Oakland Bridge and across it. I mean, how many people are driving around at that hour of the morning!

But the brakes were not the only problem challenging me and my disabled vehicle. Steering difficulties dared and double-dared us as well. In a certain speed range my car would suddenly develop the shakes, a severe vibration, bordering on insurrection and riot, that transferred up through the steering box and into the steering column and steering wheel and right into your or, that is, my hands. As much as you-I might like to ignore such insubordination or consider it a novelty, it is hard to do so. In automotive parlance, the car was in bad need of front end work, but that required cash. And anyway the brakes came first.

Thus the rebellious speed range, usually between 45 to 52 miles per hour, was avoided. There were two choices: You-I could drive slower and block traffic; or you-I could drive faster if y’I could get past the 45-52 miles per hour speed range, not always an easy trick but easiest on smooth, downhill roads. Naturally, other motorists had no appreciation of what you (enough kinky conjugations) were going through to pass from one speed domain to another; and I often found myself hoping, unlike your average California motorist, for slow and impeded highway conditions.

One other relevant problem I was having: The windshield wiper on the driver’s side was detaching occasionally from the wiper arm; and now and then I had to stop the car, get out, and run back down the road to retrieve the wiper blade.

Now I can see your critical look. You are no doubt asking: How could I put up with such a deplorable state of ill repair in an automobile? Had I no pride? Did I not care about the safety threat that my car represented to fellow citizens? Let me answer this way: Normally I tried to maximize the threat to me and minimize it to you and your loved ones, but let me also remind you: the recession was in high gear then and, for a free-lancer, getting any work at all seemed a miracle. No work meant no food, so maybe you can see that a different standard applied. Or have you never missed a meal?

Thus, in the early hours of a dark wet Summer morning in San Francisco I found myself headed up Sloat towards 19th Avenue. Traffic was still light but I had put myself in a state of high mental alertness--I had learned to do that when driving this car under certain conditions--as I drove up Sloat, a kind of byway from the beach that I knew would soon be feeding into swifter-moving channels of traffic all converging upon expressways and freeways that required utmost concentration and skill to avert catastrophe.

Oh, one other thing. I had a bad muffler that tended to attract attention, along with a spotty job of primer paint that is normal enough out in the country but tends to stand out in the city. Any cop that needed an easy ticket simply pulled me over and was one ticket closer to his quota.

However, with the rope attached to the brake pedal I was not anxious to be pulled over and scrutinized, as you might imagine.

All this combined to make city driving a nightmare for me. Before starting a journey I said travelers’ prayers, and I offered travelers’ thanksgiving if and when I arrived. In short, I knew how the early explorers felt, at least on an emotional level; and I had some inkling of the anxiety that fighter pilots must experience before a mission.

Half way up Sloat I hear a sound I don’t like to hear: a kind of "thunk" as the windshield wiper blade detaches from the wiper arm. Ah, but I’m in luck; there is almost no traffic still. I pull over and run back down the street in the wet, cold morning air, looking for the blade that blends too well with the black asphalt. I spot it. I reattach it to the wiper arm, check it carefully, for I realize I am going to be in real trouble later on if it pops out, and continue on up Sloat toward 19th Avenue.

As I approach the corner, leaving the residential section, more city lights. Uneasy somnolent black gives way to the odd white fluorescence of the all-night city as I approach that big ribbon of asphalt that runs, straight as a ruler, along its western side, friendly on a Summer day, neutral at night.

As I come to the corner and stop, holding the rope to the brake pedal in my left hand in case the pedal sticks, I notice that the brake goes all the way to the floor and takes about five pumps to develop pressure: worse than usual on a day I need all the luck I can get.

I have planned in advance my strategy for getting through San Francisco to the Oakland Bridge: I am going to go down 19th Avenue till it blends into 280 heading towards San Jose--the wrong direction--then I am going to exit 280 at the first opportunity and cross under or over, or however, and get back on 280 in the right direction. In a Beamer, a Porche, a Taurus, there are better ways to do it; but that plan of attack seems simplest given my disabled resources, and in recent times I have found simplicity to be a mighty weapon in overcoming certain odds.

Still, I am not certain that 280 connects exactly the way I think it does, so my notions of simplicity may be dashed to pieces on the hard asphalt surfaces of complex reality. I say a prayer, then I pull out onto 19th Avenue, entering a serious channel of traffic now. I feel like a small boat, a little bobber, in a big churning sea. And clearly others are up early to beat the morning mob--though surely, from the looks of things, we too are a mob--others who I hope have good brakes, steady steering, and wipers that don’t go flying off at unpredictable moments!

But I don’t seem to need to worry about this. Every vehicle I see looks brand new, sleek, powerful, yet quiet as a stealthy jungle cat. I am a rattly old stage coach compared to any of them.

As I head down 19th Avenue, the size of the mob begins to increase. Cars move swiftly, purposefully in the early morning. Looking about, which I should not be doing, I have the impression that the cars have a life of their own and that motion was occurring on a subconscious, automatic level fully understood by cars but only partially by their drivers. Were the cars taking us to a lynching? Was some deviant car or truck or van, guilty of being the wrong color or of tailgating vehicles of the same manufacturer, going to be brutally forced off the road and made to drink its own oil, then self-immolate? I shudder to think of what is going on here.

As I get further down 19th, the speed of the mob, which now seems more like a squadron or attack formation, appears to increase as well, and a few of the more vicious vehicles begin to cut in and around as little gaps or holes in the formation open up. The worrisome thing for me, of course, is the cutting in.

Just past San Francisco State University and heading uphill after the light at Holloway, the driver of a large delivery truck, seemingly acting as an individual out to prove to the formation what schedules and naked aggression are all about, muscles his way around me, foot to the floor, then cutting back in, slams on his brakes, as the car in front of him does, while I start to pump frantically. Fortunately this fool removes his foot from the brake and resumes normal speed before another fool, namely me, becomes a permanent part of his rear end.

Following that near mishap, a sleek, white Ford Taurus does nearly the same thing under the assumption that I, too, have disc brakes and can stop on the proverbial dime, whereas in truth I needed a whole soccer field.

Fools, fools, all of them. Or all of us.

Now the traffic was really picking up.

After precariously merging with a whole other south-bound stream of traffic that burst unexpectedly out of nowhere--had some great Bay Area automotive dam ruptured?--I managed to exit 280, turn around, and head the opposite way.

And now the traffic is like the rushing, tumbling waters of a river in full flood in a Winter storm, even though it is still the early hours and only a feint light shows through the mist and fog, requiring me to use my windshield wipers as we spill along 280, over the city, towards the Oakland Bridge. Was traffic so bad that people would do this on a daily basis and not just as one-time, mad courtship with disaster, as I was?

So it seems.

And now the traffic took on the quality of electricity moving through wires--or at least as I picture electrons flowing through tiny wires on a computer’s printed circuit board--or of bit streams zooming down the "information super highway," as network manufacturers and even the government are so fond of calling the next generation of "connectivity" (old terminology). Excuse the analogy if you don’t like it, but the analogy of rushing, tumbling waters seems too antiquated for the traffic I was now entering.

But what a sensation when you do not have the means to flow with that charged-up crowd of electrons, that jostling stream of bits and bytes; or when by so doing you push your creaky old car to the point of dissolution. The older cars, even when in the best of condition, do not seem to mix with these newer ones, these nervy, computer-designed, aerodynamic wonders with anti-skid brake systems and talking, boinging instrument panels. (Grumpy, reticent dashboards are a thing of the past, like grampa’s pipe.) There is a "generation gap" that becomes acutely apparent out on the freeway where nearly every driver seems to be engaged in a game called "Outmaneuver" in which only one rule applies: fill the empty space as fast as possible, short of causing collision.

And it becomes even more apparent on the Oakland Bridge, maybe because it bridges a no-man’s land of water over which the speed law is temporarily abandoned. There you ride the traffic, as a surfer rides a wave. The more traffic and the greater the speed, the bigger the wave and the greater the thrill, I guess. But do anything unexpected and the game ends in a hurry and a flurry, with cars flying every which way, along with trucks whose mass and size guarantee fiery, front-page coverage of your mishap. Death and destruction--blood, asphalt, flesh, bone, and metal coming together--all in the cause of the great rush to get somewhere absolutely as fast as possible, as though score is being kept and any inefficient movement, hesitation, indecision, or delay, such as failing to fill up the little space that appears between your car and the next, will cost points. But call me bitter, because I lack the equipment to compete in this game. If I had a ZX-10 or a ZXX-15 or a ZZXX-25000, maybe I would run you off the road in the name of sport. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to clobber your disk files.

But I’m stuck with an old ’74 VW Bug, and woe to the driver of such a relic. Shaped like an insect ready to be squashed and creeping along these asphalt ribbons of terror, you are ripe for the exterminator. You will be swept around quickly and contemptuously, as though you are a petty annoyance in a game that everyone has invested in heavily to play.

But enough of my poor-sport attitude.

Although it is lightening up as I cross the bridge, it is still very wet out, and in order to see it is still necessary to run the windshield wipers.

I am hoping they will not fly off, while a truck is having trouble pulling out from behind me so he can pass me. He is about three feet off my rear, as far as I can tell. Finally he floors it, as though he is intending to go right through me, having lost all patience and prepared himself, apparently, for a noble death if that’s what must be, but wrenches his vehicle out into an almost imperceptible slot or hair width between two cars traveling at Warp speed in the other lane, then shoots around me and cuts back into the soccer field of unoccupied space I am trying to maintain in front of me. Then up ahead, horrors! The unthinkable begins to manifest nightmare reality. Tail lights go on--many of them--and so do his.

I begin to pump rapidly, one, two, three, feeling some effect now and calculating the size of the shoulder should I have to pull off to avoid collision. After all, a glancing blow on the bridge railing, assuming it holds, is probably better than a direct hit on his rear! The tail lights stay on now--a glorious display of red and yellow and orange all over the bridge--and I continue pumping, my brakes now having substantial effect.

Steering with one hand and holding the rope in the other in case the pedal sticks--and pumping, pumping, pumping--I watch as the cars and lights come closer and closer. Dear god, dear deity, bring this car to a halt before . . .

The only detectable motion I now feel is the beating of my own heart, as I release my grip on the rope a little. I am about three feet in back of the truck and angled slightly towards the bridge railing. Nothing and no one is moving.

I look up at the great arch of the bridge. We are on the east side of the bay now, and what am I thinking about? I am almost ashamed to admit it. I am thinking about what comes next--680 south, I believe. Maybe as the driver of a "disabled vehicle" I can excuse this a little, even turn it into a joke. But it also strikes me head-on: the bizarreness, the existential weirdness of the whole thing. Before I was peripherally aware that things were, well, a bit odd; or let us say damned odd, for we have all gotten used to a world rich in peculiarity of a disconcerting nature. But my strangeness I viewed as a reaction to your or their (oh, let us say our) greater strangeness. Do you understand what I mean? But now it comes like a flash of illumination. Off stage has become center stage. The situation on the bridge is as close as you (y’I) can get, so it seems to me at this moment, to the Great Cosmic Joke. Was the blissful look on the Buddha’s face turning into a silly grin? Was Christ slapping the Almighty on the back and pointing down towards Oakland? Was Coyote having his day? And who are those two tall tourists with the Camcorders? Zeus and side-kick Hermes wanting to see this one first hand? Is the universe laughing? At them, the drivers of those other cars, who take the game so seriously? Or at me with my bad master brake cylinder, rope in hand, and thoughts glued just the moment before to whether my windshield wiper will come flying off as I become a blind man in this swarm of stalled vehicles? Are the heavens about to part and the game participants, asked to get out of their cars, about to be marched off to a special part of hell reserved for special fools, perhaps to be placed, individually, in little glass bottles in the mud under the bay for a million years of penance and soul contemplation? Will they cling to their vehicles, beg, weep, and have to be forcibly parted?

I wait. But instead brake lights go off and traffic, with the exception of me--I pause to listen for the roar of laughter or a command from above--resumes its normal breakneck speed within a matter of seconds.

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