Monday, August 07, 2006

The Worst Drivers in America

When I was sixteen, like many Californians, my father took me out to an empty parking lot to teach me how to drive. I had received drivers' education in school (something, I've heard, public schools no longer provide), under the ancient, slightly dodgy guidance of health teacher Dick Stock, but since I would be driving cars with manual transmissions, AND ONLY CARS WITH MANUAL TRANSMISSIONS, Dad felt I needed some further training. We went down to "the plant" -- what we always called the place Dad worked, in this case the office furniture manufacturing concern Hon Industries (#2 in the biz, behind the hated Steelcase) -- grabbed the beat-up Toyota pickup truck that always seemed to be available to us whenever we needed it, and put the neophyte me behind the wheel.

As I've said before, in my world all car knowledge begins and ends with Dad. If not for Dad, I never would have risen above my teenage geekiness, courtesy of the 1965 Alfa Romeo Guilia Spyder we bought with my Bar Mitzvah money. If not for Dad, we would not be driving our beloved Acura today. I wanted a Saab.

On that day in 1981, I learned how to coordinate the clutch/throttle combo; how to pull smoothly away from stop signs, how to match revs on downshifts, how to upshift without foolishly revving the engine between gears (something, I might add, that many Harley-Davidson riders have yet to learn). I also learned some driving philosophy. Dad is a defensive driver, and he preached a motto that I've never forgotten. "Always assume that everyone else on the road is a homocidal maniac," he said.

In the twenty-five years since that day, I've remembered his advice often. But I have to admit, I haven't always followed it. "Dad was overreacting," I'd think. "These other drivers are like me: usually careful, not very agressive. They're not maniacs at all."

That was before I drove in New Jersey.

Yesterday, we left the comfortable Bergen County residence of Peter O'Toole and Princess Grace and drove 75 miles to Skillman, NJ, home of former Seattlites Dr. Eisman, her stylish French husband Dr. Flipper and their irrespressible 5-year-old daughter. We've been in New Jersey since Friday, and during that time I've been offering up "New Jersey drivers are the worst in the country," repeatedly, with no actual proof. I now have my proof.

Several times during the short drive I was almost run off the road. At one point, needing to change lanes to the left or face spinning off onto the wrong "highway," I found that the big pickup truck next to me was actually speeding up to block access. The goateed driver wore a menacing glare. On the way home, after negotiating a half-hour of pitch-black, streetlight-free suburbia, we settled in comfortably on the Garden State Parkway, only to be buzzed at 90+ mph by five boy racerized Honda Civics. I imagined us as their Tom Wolfe shiny black shoed FBI agents, our pale marshmallow faces exploding as they zoomed past. In their Hondas.

This is not safe. Even in our luxurious rental Camry, we were terribly overmatched. I don't have the lightning fast reflexes, the take-no-prisoners mindset, the night vision goggles. I am a Californian, as I had remembered earlier, and not prepared for New Jersey's killing fields. They have no on-ramps here. You just pull out, mash your foot onto the accelerator, and hope for the best. Highway exchanges are on the left, which is completely counter-intuitive.

We spent the afternoon in Princeton, NJ, where I urged the Jawa to consider an Ivy League education. After dinner, we repaired to the Drs' wide verandah for dessert. Flipper turned on Van Morrison's "Moondance," which is exactly the album I used to listen to and brood about San Francisco when we lived in Seattle. The music floated out through the factory-installed outdoor speakers.

It was a pleasant night. The fireflies buzzed about nearby. We knew that the Drs' 5000+ square foot home in Skillman cost about the same as our dilapidated Glen Park pad, but Van reminded me how it felt to be crouched down in the Seattle Public Library, looking at San Francisco picture books, missing it so badly that it felt like something I could eat.

Stupid San Francisco. It makes absolutely no sense to live there. The minute you stop loving it irrationally, it's time to get out. But ask Peter O'Toole and Princess Grace, who have now been in exile for one month and are already planning their triumphant return in 3 years.

That is, if they survive the drivers in New Jersey.


Anonymous roger a. hunt said...

Kinda' gives you a new appreciation for the lyric
"[t]hey'll meet 'neath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light."

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Noodle's Mom said...

Oh please, I just spent the last week driving through the streets of S.F., narrowly averting death and disaster at every turn. It was a harrowing experience every time I got behind the wheel.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous gedalya ben Yitzhak said...

I offer for your consideration the northwest corner of the Valley of the Sun. The rule is: As long as you are traveling less than 35mph and have at least one blinker on, any blinker, you can drive in any lane you want on any road you want, even the freeways, for as long as you want.

8:02 PM  
Blogger moosh said...

and here is me about to start learning to drive - I might rethink now!

4:56 AM  
Blogger Bud and/or Marsi said...

that is sooo funny! just this AM i was telling the monkey, to remember when she learned to drive, that everyone else is an idiot. and that grandpa was the one who told me. and i have to say that phoenix metro has THE worst.

4:51 PM  
Anonymous anotherlefty said...

I have to go with Marsi, next to Arizona, which is the absolute worst, New Jersey has always run a close second. I always fell asleep on the way to NY as soon as we hit the NJ border, except, of course, the time when we put the top down and joined in the parade in Budd Lake.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Bud and/or Marsi said...

how could you fall asleep when you hit jersey?! going north as soon as you hit the border that stink hits you like a brick over the head. hitting the jersey border was like smelling salt...

2:05 PM  
Anonymous the hammer said...

Can't comment on the New Jersey or AZ drivers, having almost always dealt with Bay Area folk..

"The Plant" - isn't that the name that Fred MacMurray used for his place of business in My Three Sons? You're not old enough to remember that, I'm afraid.

1:27 PM  
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