Sunday, August 3, 2008

Traveling Home from Work I Saw a Jerk

Really funny piece in the Times magazine Sunday on people’s bad behavior on the roads—specifically about a phenomenon my husband and I have enjoyed many good, bonding, soul-mate-level rants about. While Gorney is describing a scene particular to a road in California, anyone Washington commuter whose daily grind involves heading south down the 270 spur in the evenings will recognize the behavior she describes. Just before the spot where the spur hits the Beltway east toward I-95, the far left lane exits onto 355 south. Every day, hundreds of patient souls line up in the bottleneck into the loop, and every day, scores of other shoot by these waiting cars in pretense of exiting at the Bethesda offshoot—only to zip over at the last possible second and jam their way into the line onto 495.

Every time I see this, my inner fifth grader wants to yell "Cutters!" Maybe these people skipped elementary school. Maybe they were spoiled as children. Whatever it is, something tells them it’s fine to skip past all those decent souls waiting patiently in line (OK—maybe they’re not all decent souls. Maybe there’s a child molester or a virulent homophobe or a white supremacist in one of those cars, but when you’re stuck in traffic, all you want from your fellow commuters is courtesy; your grander moral judgments can wait till you’re home in time for dinner).

Gormey amusingly depicts our mixed reactions to this driving behavior as a battle between two opposing forces in the American soul: We like to believe we are simultaneously a) a nation of equals and fair play, but also of b) rugged individualism. So how to cope with those rugged (read: smug, self-important, at best oblivious) individuals who assert their individualism via what
N.P.H. would certainly call “a dick move”? Cope with it, that is, without being tempted to go for that other classic symbol of the rugged American soul—namely, c) the .44 Magnum?

Most of these people would not cut in line at a movie theater or other open-air queue where they can actually be identified and called out. But behaving badly in a car, where fellow drivers can catch at most a passing glimpse of their faces, seems to cause them no shame. Or does it? Maybe these people wake in the night and feel wretchedly guilty. Maybe they confess it to their priests.

Parishioner: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Last week, coming home to Chevy Chase, I pretended I was going to get off at Bethesda and instead cut back in to the line onto the Beltway. I haven’t been able to sleep since.
Priest: I cast you out, hell spawn, and may all the angels in heaven spit on your minivan.

I’m working on several poems about being stuck in traffic right now—more about all the odd places my mind goes to while stuck in it—but when I started poking around in my various anthologies and online sources, I found that traffic seems to be an underwritten theme in contemporary American poetry. Given what a large feature of our lives it’s become, it seems like it would have more of a presence. Anyone have any good ones? I’d love to read them.

In the absence of a good traffic jam poem, here’s a driving classic instead—one about ethics, at that, and one of the first poems I ever loved, on that “God-DAMN, that is a great poem” sort of level. The great William Stafford, below (and remember, folks, wherever your commute takes you, watch out for deer. They were here first—even before the folks waiting patiently to merge—and as bad as the real estate market's gotten for us, it's a hell of a lot worse for them).


Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—
then pushed her over the edge into the river.


Maggie May said...

that is too sad.

M. C. Allan said...

It is a terribly sad poem, but amazingly restrained at the same time. That's why I love it: presents it with such an objective voice, it seems all the more intimate somehow?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I block the traffic cutters with my own bumper and shout at them Kant's Categorical Imperative:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

In traffic blogs, I am a kind of Jesus.

[Anonymous 3]

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Stafford's voice was quiet and deliberate in its power. Restraint is a good way to describe his view of "smoke's way out". That's the quiet, deliberate voice that begins with ... roll, stumbled, stood, stiffened, dragged ... but finds its resolve: "I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red; / around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. // I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—" finally leading the reader to the inevitable moment of loss at the end.

Anonymous said...

Also: Steve Winwood used to play in Traffic.

[Anon 3]

M. C. Allan said...

Funny, Anon3: Whenever I yell "Kant" in traffic, people seem to get really angry ...

M. C. Allan said...

Very true, Sam. I think the poem's restraint comes from the use of words and the form, as well: disciplined lines, the meter, the end words which don't rhyme but play off each other sonically: road/dead, killing/belly, waiting/hesitated -- and then the last stanza, which almost literally brings you up short. Pretty stunning piece of work.

molly said...

i thought benicio del toro was in traffic.