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by joseph    October 14, 2002

Perhaps it has to do with the amount of time one spends in one's car living and working in Seattle, or just the fact that my life has very few interesting components to it, but I realized that I have already devoted two essays to my car. This piece can be considered the final member of the triptych; I have focused on the car itself and its other inhabitants. Now I shall focus that camera on myself as I try to dissect the quality or lack thereof of my driving skills.

Most people, if pressed, would assert that they are good drivers. In much the same way that no one would ever want to own up to being a bad lover, stepping forth and saying that you're a bad driver is difficult to do. I know many bad drivers, and a lot of mediocre ones, and all of them labor (dangerously) under the misconception that they are, in fact, safe as houses behind the wheel. I won't go so far as to say I'm a bad driver, but I will say that I am a mediocre driver in theory, but a good driver in practice -- in practice because I underestimate two things -- my own reaction time and the intelligence of others. I am incredibly timid, a grandma driver, all because, frankly, I don't want to die in a car accident. It would probably be a quick death, true, and a bit on the exciting side, what with all that crunching metal and tire screeching sounds, but itis very passe, and I don't want my cause of death to be listed as as reaching under seat for a rogue Tic-Tac when he slammed into the back of a bus. And so I stay alert and try to attend to the business at hand -- driving -- as much as is possible given my inate lack of attentiveness. All in all, though, I do all right, neither in the upper echelons of good drivers nor wallowing in the large and muck-filled pit of incompetent-death-on-wheels.

So imagine my chagrin a few weeks ago when I was heading back to my office from the Target down the street, where I had gone to purchase foaming facial wash, toothpaste and cat snacks. I was looking to make a right onto a four-lane street. The light was red, but since I was making a right (and this is a long-ass red light), I figured I would exercise my legal right to make right turn on a red light. I looked left, and for a time a steady stream of traffic was filling up both lanes going my way, so I waited patiently. Since later on down the road the right lane ends, most cars line up in the left lane, and so there was a slowly moving line in the left lane but no one in the right. Well aware that someone might choose to switch lanes abruptly, I looked left and, finding myself clear, made my move, accelerating faster than I normally do to reach the 35 mph speed limit.

Of course the moment I choose to turn onto the road, a guy in a minivan decides to break free from the queue on the left and, in the middle of an intersection and without signaling, races into the right lane...which brings him right up on my ass in a matter of seconds. Now, because I had made a conscious effort to accelerate quickly, I was going the speed limit -- 35 -- by the time he arrived knocking at my asshole, but he obviously wanted to go faster than that and considers that this lane was designed specifically to allow him to get ahead of other cars and what was I, this interloper, doing, for Christ's sake? I look back in the rearview mirror and see him making a point-to-his-head-and-twirl-his-finger gesture, which Iive never actually seen anyone do -- it seemed archaic and somehow quaint, and so I started to laugh.

Experience has taught me that when people are angry they don't like to be laughed at, but I couldn't help it. At this point the left lane had opened up a bit, and he races into the other lane and hits the gas to pull up alongside me. I stay focused in front of me -- if he wants to yell or make an obscene gesture, I might as well make him wait. After a few seconds I glance over. Perhaps thinking it was something I had best see, you know, to add dramatic heft to what he was about to say, he waited until he was alongside to push the button and roll down the passenger side window. I had an urge to roll down my window, but there wasn't any need--I had the convertible top down.

And then he said it, that phrase that has been echoing in my head ever since, that statement that has injected a syringe of self-doubt into my psyche.

Apparently -- I drive like a monkey.

It was a mere five words, a meager six syllables, but those words struck me like a sixteen-ton Python-esque anvil falling from the sky. "You drive like a monkey." The words echo in my brain -- stuck on my mental movie screen is his face, large and round with a bright sheen and a pseudo-Hitler mustache in the center of it. I canit sleep at night. In my dreams, I am trapped in small cars with hordes of various species of monkeys, driving them down crowded and rain-swept Seattle streets, with them continually screeching and getting excited over small bits of fruit, mangoes and whatnot, and struggling furiously to focus on road ahead of me.

I can only assume that the words were offered as insult to my driving skill, that, despite the fact that he broke a law in changing lanes in the middle of an intersection and without use of his turn signal, he considered my facility at the wheel to be so egregiously bad that he felt the need to rack his brain and develop a telling metaphor that he could hurl at me through his open window. But was it an insult? I can only assume that monkeys would be bad drivers, that, though intelligent, they would find themselves less than able to deal with the complexities of rules that govern travel on our American roads. And the gentleman who made the remark had bits of crusty white spittle in the corners of his mouth and a wild blaze in his eye, indicating dissatisfaction. So while I may imagine that he was in fact offering me a compliment -- saying that he admired my proto-humanoid instinct and yen for chance-taking -- Iim pretty sure that in comparing my skills to a monkey, he meant to convey a sense of shame, of self-loathing.

But damn it, humans evolved from lower life forms akin to monkeys and their larger cousins, and just as the lower species can reach and climb and clamber for purchase on the rocky stone face of Darwinian selection, so too might I, with this manis rejoinder ringing in my ears, seek to improve not only myself but, by driving out the animal impulses that cling like flung feces to my automobile skills, the calm good health of those with whom I have the pleasure of sharing Seattle streets.

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