Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Last Time I Ever Drove a Car

I was driving east just below the high hill on South Gennesee St. and starting to turn left into one of the side streets. Suddenly I hit the break as a small gray vehicle sped by blocking my turn. I don’t know how it got there. A nanosecond before, the coast had been clear. It was as if the car had materialized out of the void of that dreary November afternoon. I inhaled a sigh of relief that I did not hit the car, but exhaled cold shock as the car veered right off the street busting a telephone pole in half. The upper half of the pole hung limply from its wires balancing itself against the lower half.

A small Vietnamese woman climbed out of the car followed by about half dozen pre-school aged children. The woman stood with hands on hips glaring at me in rage. The children stared wide eyed and trembling. One slight waif of a girl in a white silk party dress and ski jacket started crying uncontrollably, a high pitched wail that cut through the city noise like a police siren.

The date was Sunday, November 28, 1999, two days before the big World Trade Organization protests. It was one of those winter days in Seattle that never quite achieve true dayness but remain in a state of perpetual twilight. The sky glowed gray like the light in a mirror reflector microscope with an untimely darkness already beginning to pull down the unwelcome curtain of night. But I had been on a mission, driving my husband’s charcoal gray 1990 Oldsmobile mini-van around town borrowing bedding to accommodate twelve Pilipino activists scheduled to spend the week camped on my living room floor. My last stop was to be at the home of my friend, Jan, who had promised me the loan of a comfortable air mattress. That would have to wait.

I don’t know how long I just sat there in the van in the middle of the street, unable to move a muscle. It was as though, like Lot’s wife, I had turned] into a pillar of salt. But soon I began to tremble and my teeth to chatter. Cars from both directions scolded with their horns. It crossed my mind that I ought to stay put until the police came, but I was blocking traffic in both directions. So after the cars had edged around me and the coast was surely clear, I crept on into the side street and parked the van along side the curb.

Despite my state of shock, I decide to get out and go check on the woman and her children. A crowd was gathering around the family all giving me evil, angry looks. One woman ran out of her house, her long blonde pony bobbing up and down. She pointed a long skinny finger at me and shrieked, “She cut her off!”

I was still trembling and my teeth chattering. “I -- .I’m so, so sorry,” I stammered over and over as people glared at me vindictively and fired criticisms like, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going? “What’s wrong with you? Are you drunk?”

Soon a policeman pulled up and got out of his car. His round red face and tiny eyes gazed at me with a stoic, almost sympathetic expression as though a severed phone pole were an every day occurrence. He gave me some forms and told me to get back in the van, fill them out and wait. From inside the van, I could see him talking to people and taking notes. An ambulance showed up. The family all piled into it together and were taken away. Still the policeman continued listening to the spectators, or should I say witnesses. I am not a judgmental person myself, but I could sympathize with them. Most people in this neighborhood were of a progressive frame of mind and would be eager to defend an innocent minority family against the careless infractions of a tall white woman in a big automobile.

I waited for what seemed an eternity, continuing to tremble especially as I got colder with the engine off. I reached for one of the blankets from my borrowed collection in back of the van and wrapped it around me. Then I closed my eyes to calm myself. Now I could think about the possible consequences of all this and what to do. Our car insurance company would be sued. They would either cancel our insurance or drastically raise the premiums. It did not look like anyone had been hurt, but, if not, why the ambulance?

It did not take me long to make a decision that has drastically changed my life. The solution was obvious. I would finish my final errand for the day and drive the van home. I would place the keys in the little china dish with the lid where we kept such things, and I would never drive again.

In the last several years I had only driven a car as a last resort anyway. I preferred going to work and almost everywhere else by bike and/or bus. The reason I happened to be driving that day was because my bicycle panniers were too small for the cargo I was carrying. I could get a week’s groceries on my bike, but not piles of blankets and pillows. Besides the fact that I loved bicycling and hated driving, I did not feel safe operating large fast vehicles because of my exotropia (wall eyedness). Every couple of years there had been a fender bender. Now this. I did not need this.

It was after dark by the time the police officer returned to my vehicle. I rolled down the window and he handed me a citation for “inattentive driving.”

“Was anyone hurt?” I asked.

The officer shook his head. “Naw, I don’t think so. The medics checked them out and said they were okay. But they took them to the emergency room anyway just in case.”

“Thank God,” I said.

Thinking back on the incident with the hind sight of so many years, I wonder if I really was entirely to blame for the accident. Maybe I should have defended myself. After all, the other woman must have been driving like a bat out of purgatory to get over the hill and in front of my car before I saw it. If she had not been speeding, she might have been able to control her car and not hit the phone pole, or at least the impact might not have broken the thing in half. But I am timid about sticking up for myself. Besides I have never regretted my hastily made decision. It has been a great relief to remove driving from my life.

That evening I went to a Unitarian church service where people get up, light candles and talk about joys and sorrows of their lives. I lit a candle and explained that due to my vision problems, I had caused an accident that day. I promised to surrender my driver’s license and never drive again. I said my only concern was that I might not be able to get as much done if I had to spend more time on the bus.

After the service a young woman came up to me and said she did not drive a car because she could not afford one. “But,” she said, “There are lots of things you can do on the bus. I don’t trim my toe nails on the bus,” she laughed, “But I have thought of it.” Me, I just read on the bus, observe the world, and relax. That is more fun than driving and not nearly so dangerous. .


Char said...

That was a scary situation you were in, and I'm so glad no one apparently was hurt when this accident happened. It sounds like the other lady cut YOU off! But it's good that you gave up driving, since you do have visual problems. Hopefully you don't have too much trouble biking and that you will be okay when biking (and can see well enough to make decisions you need to).

I gave up my car a few months ago -and have been car-free. I didn't use my car much anyway, so it's not a big loss. :) But I agree, it does come in handy in some situations. But I hope that you've been able to do okay getting stuff done and getting errands taken care of when needed. You could look into getting an Extracycle or a B.O.B. trailer of some sort to carry larger items. :)

Good luck and be safe on the road! :)


ebucklew said...

Hey Mona --

I remember well that Sunday in church when you lit a candle and pledged never to drive again. You seemed so shaken by the experience at the time.
Our daughter Gracie was born the very next day (11/29/99) and she is amazed and impressed that you get everywhere on a bike -- even to the Hood Canal!

Love ya, Liz

David said...

HI. Nice blog, you have a very compelling voice. keep it up!

Congratulations for choosing to abandon automobile culture for a superior lifestyle. It is truly a brave decision, especially considering the prevalence and persuasion of the 'cult of the engine' still persistent in the face of evidence that clearly describes a disastrous future based upon the personal-use engine.

I am consistently amazed at how those entrapped inside automobile culture casually throw out phrases like:

"I did not feel safe operating large fast vehicles because of my exotropia (wall eyedness). Every couple of years there had been a fender bender."

As a cyclist and frequenter of busy city streets, this kind of statement scares the heck out of me, yet I'm amazed at how casually such a statement is both made and accepted. In our aging society, this type of statement is becoming more frequent, yet still many would rather give up their left leg than give up their "right" to drive.

The future will be self-propelled!

SiouxGeonz said...

A few too-close-for-my-comfort calls really contributed to my cycling more and more. No way to know if those little lapses of attention that only coincidentally didn't hurt anybody are typical or not, but now driving is novel enough that it's a bit easier to give it the attention it deserves. I sold my car to my brother (who uses it as a taxi )last May and haven't replaced it yet.