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Notorious RRZ: Traffic Barbarian

2004-08-08 - 4:41 p.m.

The insanity of my last entry may not have indicated that I love driving cross-country. There's something wonderful about putting on a great CD and barrelling down the highway at great speed. It's horribly cheesy, but I love looking out at America from a car window, and giving people cheerful nods and miles in gas stations, and seeing them wince when I tell them how far I've been travelling, and especially hearing them wish me luck when I walk out the door with my diet pepsi and my bag of peanuts, or my Tropicana smoothie and my granola bars, or my bottled water and bag of Funyuns, which is the kind of special, horribly junk-foodish treat I reserve exclusively for long road trips.

Rather appropriately, my favorite music to listen to on these trips is folk and country. Now, to me, country is neither Garth Brooks nor the Dixie Chicks. Country is Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams. There's nothing like listening to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in Arkansas, or Red Dirt Girl on a snowy morning in Tennessee, or Live from Folsom Prison and San Quentin while flooring it through West Texas. As for folk, I have a special road romance with the Indigo Girls. Like They Might Be Giants, the Indigo Girls are a band that I often forget when talking about my favorites, because I only own a couple of their albums. However, when I'm on the road, I always have their albums handy, and singing at the top of my lungs along with "Galileo," "Least Complicated," "Shame on You," "Land of Canaan," and most especially the best road song ever, "Get Out the Map," keeps me from catching white line fever and gets me to my destination with extra speed.

Yeah, I love driving across this great land of ours. What I absolutely despise is driving through cities.

See, I am a city kid who, unfortunately, grew up in a city made up entirely of suburbs. When I got to Philadelphia back in 1998, I felt much more at home. No matter how much it sucked to lug around groceries, I felt much better, not to mention healthier, walking to my destinations rather than driving to them. I had become what I was always meant to be: a pedestrian. Not only was this a foreign concept to my friends in Texas, but it was a lifestyle I took to more than many of my other friends at Penn. They may have wanted to take Septa downtown, or, worse, spend their money on that most decadent of luxuries, a taxi, but I was happy to stroll the 20, 30, or 40 blocks to get to the bar or store or restaurant where we were planning on spending our time.

Once I had discovered this love of walking, I had resolved never to live in a city again where I had to get around by car. This, of course, was a foolish desire, as there are only a handful of cities in this country where that is feasible, and they are notably expensive. Nowhere was this truth more terrifying than in Washington, DC, where I lived for a brief period of time after graduating from college. After a brief stay near Capitol Hill, I wound up staying in Alexandria, which meant that I had to commute in to work. For a while, this meant standing outside in the snow waiting for the bus that would take me to the Metro. However, towards the end, my boss wound up with her car in the shop, and seeing as I was the closest person to where she lived, I was assigned to come pick her up in the morning. Which meant I got to drive into DC.

To communicate the terror that this engendered in me, I have to go back to the loose-knit collection of suburbs that make up the city of San Antonio, where I grew up. Compared to most cities of its size, and even to some smaller cities in Texas, San Antonio has virtually no traffic problems. There are two big loops that circumnavigate the city, and a number of highways that can take you anywhere you need to go. In San Antonio, you really can't move for all the alternate routes that surround you. Despite all this, driving was a daily exercise in tension control that I was consistently failing. I would look at yield signs the way that French aristocrats looked at the guillotine. I was just waiting for the day when I would think I was clear and move forward, only to be plowed into by an 18-wheeler and mutilate instantly, or worse, to be hit by a gold-plated Mercedes whose owner would then sue my parents for millions of dollars due to the scratch on his passenger door.

Partially despite this terror but mostly because of it, I got into a number of car wrecks as a teen, which thrilled my parents to no end. They were convinced that it was because of my tendency to daydream, but they couldn't have been more wrong. In most of the instances, I had been waiting so long to cross left through traffic or get onto the highway that eventually all that tension snapped and, like a rubber band, I was hurled out into traffic where I would introduce myself to a stranger in the rudest way possible. Fortunately, everyone I dealt with in this capacity took pity on me as a nerdy teenager who was clearly a pedestrian underneath it all. I particularly loved the first people I ever hit with my car, because it was a car full of girls in their 20s, and, seeing as the accident was my fault, they were able to shrug most of it off in order to assure me that they were okay, that the driver's daddy would by her a shiny new BMW, that they pitied me because I had just started driving that year, and that they would take the edge off of their stress by getting drunk that evening. I hope that they're still doing the same today.

So, if San Antonio traffic was a world of fear for me, you can imagine what driving in a major city meant. That first morning, I got to my boss's house and crossed myself in the hopes that, were I to get in a wreck, it would be me who was injured and not her.

Miraculously, I got through all this with my car, my life, and my job intact, although I left DC only a week or so later. In fact, it wound up being a great chance for me to bond with my boss, who seemed to be the only person in the office besides me who had a sense of humor. I'd put on Simon and Garfunkel or Janis Joplin for her, and we'd have a pretty good time.

When I moved to Austin, I thought that I'd already survived the gauntlet, and that Austin, being smaller than San Antonio, would be easy to navigate. Well, the problem was that Austin has one major corridor: the I-35. This means that when traffic gets backed up, it gets backed up to Oklahoma. Because of this, Austinites, who in more reasonable environs are usually liberal, peace-loving activists, turn into barbarian warriors on the road, cutting off one another like marauding Huns or Celts, brandishing axes and snarling with their blue-painted faces.

This meant that I, too, had to learn to be more aggressive. It was hard at first. I didn't know how to handle road rage, even though I felt it about every other day. There was even one morning when I was cut off while getting off the highway, and for about 6 seconds I thought that it would be worth it to back my car up all the way down the exit ramp and then hit the gas in order to ram into the bastard's car with enough force to do real damage. Fortunately, I learned to live with my fury and, moreover, to channel it. I learned that no one, not even pacifists, are going to let you in during rush hour without something of a fight, so there are times when you have to wedge the edge of your bumper right into the space between two cars in defiance of the laws of geometry and make it clear that you are not going anywhere except in front of the person whose way you are blocking. It's not nice, folks, but it's reality.

Despite all this, I was still terrified of having to drive through Berkeley, much less San Francisco. I was looking forward to utilizing the BART and my own two legs, but the problem was that I had things to do, and I needed my car to do them. Most notably, I had to get to Marin County yesterday, because that's where one of my favorite monologuists, Josh Kornbluth, was performing his latest show, Love and Taxes. In addition, Shkbob, who was coming down with strep throat, wanted nothing more than to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge while she was here, which meant that the best thing for us to do would be to go into the city and do something fun (we decided on getting ice cream in the Castro, so that I could show her that I had indeed arrived at Gay Headquarters), then go over the Golden Gate Bridge to see the show, and then head back home.

After a brief visit to Yahoo Maps, I figured it was now or never. I hoped that I would make it out alive, and that I wouldn't kill anyone else along the way.

What I had not expected was that the inner road barbarian was always inside me, and had chosen this day to arise from the core of my being to ensure that I would arrive in a safe and timely manner. When I got on the highway, not only was I keeping up with people, but I was passing them, and passing them well. When they were in my way, I yelled out, albeit with the windows up, "I'm from Texas and I'm pushy, motherfuckers, GET OUT OF MY WAY!!!" There were even close shaves when Shkbob said, "We're gonna die" and I wheeled around to her and yelled, "WE ARE NOT GOING TO DO! DON'T FUCKING TALK LIKE THAT! Thanks!"

And with her help as navigator, we got to the Castro, and we got to the show in Marin. The show was fantastic, absolutely hilarious, and Austinites need to be on the look-out for when he takes it to UT this year. Afterwards, I got to talk to him, and I told him about my recent journey, and when he signed my copy of his book her wrote, "Thanks for walking all the way up from Texas in your bare feet through the snow all the way up to Marin!! Rock on, Josh Kornbluth."

I wanted to tell him, "No Josh. I drove. I drove through traffic. It was a much bigger acheivement, for me. Walking in the snow is something I've never minded."

Today, I will drive once again, to Target for hangers and possibly to Ikea. And if the traffic gets too rough, I'll just take a deep breath, put on some good music, and paint my face blue. That, combined with the Texas license plate, will hopefully let people know not to mess with me.

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