Crash: The Authoritarian Automobile

From the mid-1990s.

I’m sitting on the bus spacing out. It’s a cold wet November morning. I’ve got a book open in my lap but I’m staring out the window. The 48’s stopped at 23rd and Union, heading towards the U–another day of office hours, teaching, trying to do research. Still waking up.

A guy in a black cap comes out of the MiniMart with a cup of coffee in his hand and a newspaper under his arm. He sees the bus and starts that funny scuttling run people do when they have their hands full and they’re trying to catch the bus. He glances right, sizing up the traffic in the opposite lanes, then to his left to see what’s closest. All clear. He scurries into the street, a sheepish grin on his face. I wonder if I should point him out to the driver. People are still climbing on; he’s not watching the street yet. I’ve been this guy dozens of times, yelling to get the driver’s attention, hoping I don’t get run over. He makes it across the southbound lanes and steps across the yellow line.

There’s a funny sound that metal makes hitting bone at thirty miles an hour. Like a combination of BAM and CRUNCH–hard to describe, hard to spell, but absolutely unmistakable. It’s a sound we all recognize, we all know intimately, even if we’ve never heard it before. It’s part of our dreams, part of the soundtrack of industrial life. I imagine the futurists, who glorified the machine gun, would have used it if they had done performance art.

The guy spins around screaming Fuck! and collapses on the wet concrete. The car that hit him vanishes in a gray blur.

We’re surrounded by tons of flying metal. Mostly we accept it, but every so often something happens to remind us what that means. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. For at least the past six years, off and on–ever since I moved to Seattle and sold my pickup, preferring to rely on bike and bus and occasional loans from car-owning friends. Really longer though. I remember an article I read some dozen years ago in the East Bay Express in Oakland, called “The Road to Nowhere.” [NB: They published an entirely different article under the same title in 2006; if you go looking for it online that’s the one you’ll find.] A lengthy meditation on the superhighway and the suburbs, it contained a passage of poetic brilliance, I thought, on how the danger and violence of high-speed crashes is too sudden for us to assimilate when it happens. It seeps backwards in time, coloring the most mundane drive with a subliminal aura of fear. Only I think the theory applies to all car traffic, not just on the highways.

Later, after we’ve left the scene and we’re back to the morning commute, I will remember the bam-crunch and the yell, the man in the black cap spinning and falling, and flinch. Wince. I hate the thought of the metal slamming into my leg–his leg–anyone’s. I remember a time last summer when I jumped off a concrete abutment and bruised my heel; I see myself in the same position, writhing on the ground. I twitch.

PBS did a series on World War I not too long ago. The most disturbing thing in all eight hours was the footage of shell-shock victims. They were not the melancholy, slightly vacant faces of Hollywood portrayals. One man lay, not on his back, but prone: his head and his feet holding him up, his back and legs arced in a shuddering, relentless tension, punctuated by spasms. Another tried to walk, against the incessant jerks of all of his muscles: legs, feet, arms, torso, neck, face. It was like watching a man try to walk through an impossible wind, a wind measured in G-forces rather than miles per hour.

Bam-crunch. Flinch.

That was the most disturbing thing. But the saddest part of that documentary was something a woman said who had the misfortune to survive into World War II. She said that people seemed to have gotten used to the slaughter. They weren’t as bothered by it as they were in the first war.

The guy is lying on his side, his legs curled up to his chest, still writhing and yelling, when I get off the bus to see what I can do. His coffee cup lies crushed nearby, the newspaper soaks up the rain a few feet away.

So we accept that tons of metal hurtle past us, inches from our bodies. We learn a simple but dire lesson: you must obey the rules. Not the speed limit, not even the rule against jaywalking–a more ambiguous, but paradoxically a more adamant and deadly rule: stay out of the way. Or: take your chances, but you know the cost if you lose.

We learn this rule before we learn to speak. Once I was walking across campus, between the parking lots near Fifteenth Avenue and the Burke Museum. The whole area is paved, and people use it as a sidewalk on their way out to the Ave. But across the full length of both lots a crosswalk is painted, indicating where, in theory, a pedestrian should walk.

As I came up from the street, a group of preschoolers was being herded in the same direction. They were in pairs, holding hands. The adults were watching them like sheep dogs. Every time they strayed outside the painted lines their guards pounced, forcing them back.

I thought: what a strange thing to try to understand as a child, that this abstract mark on the ground is a border that must not be crossed. The child’s curiosity and exuberance, the desire to run, wander, follow one’s nose–all must be subordinated to some strangely frightening yet arbitrary boundary.

But if you go stand on 23rd Avenue, say just south of Jefferson, where houses cluster close to the sidewalk and kids from Garfield gather after school, you’ll see the same lesson taught with ample illustration. The rush hour cars fly by with no thought for the possibility that a kid might stumble off the curb. Nothing mysterious about this at all.

Of course, every society imposes more or less arbitrary limits on its children, both physical and psychological. But none, it seems, so many or with such dire force as those that accept the car as a fact of life.

Off the bus, I stand in the cold and drizzle, waving oncoming cars into the right lane to go around him. I don’t know any first aid, and I feel that this is all I can do. I look back to where a couple other people are crouched over him, talking. His cap is back on his head. Was it knocked off by the force of the crash? It looks strange, new, as though it belongs to someone else.

It’s strange, the times I find myself standing in front of moving cars, considering how they scare me. A similar scene, after a fender bender near my home. At Critical Mass, blocking traffic for the bikes to get through. And once, at a demonstration downtown during rush hour, when a woman went into the street and looked likely to get run over by an irate commuter, I stepped out behind her thinking, You’ll have to run me down next. More followed, we sat, and the cars stopped moving.

This lesson–don’t step out of line–pervades our experience at a cellular level. It’s part of who we are, part of our bodies, part of our dreams, part of the way we carry ourselves when no one’s looking. Trying to figure out how to describe that man getting hit, I realized the only way to do it was not to do it at all. Not to say, “Then a car suddenly appeared and struck him,” or some such. Partly that’s an old writer’s trick, leaving the most important part unstated, leaving it up to the imagination. But more important, I think, is that everyone already knows the scenario. And not because it’s common: this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone get hit by a car. It’s because we live with the possibility every day, breathe it and eat it, and so become inured, the way that woman in the documentary saw with horror that people had become inured to war.

Foucault speaks of the discipline which creates sexual norms, the way that power infiltrates itself into every cranny of our existence, constituting our identities with its prescriptions and injunctions. But what of the material conditions that add their weight–literally–to those norms? What of the intimate understanding we all carry in our bodies, that to step out of line is to be flattened? Surely this has some effect on our personalities? Surely the imperative to obey, to conform, is not restricted to the immediate circumstances of its origins? It must seep into our ways of thinking, of doing, of feeling even when we’re far from the street and “safe.”

The fire engine shows up, pulls across both lanes of oncoming traffic. I climb back on the bus, but soon a cop comes along and wants to know if anybody saw what happened. I tell him yes, and explain what I saw. “So he was jaywalking,” the cop says.

The authoritarian implications of our technology become especially clear when you consider that we depend on others to obey the same rules. That half ton of metal coming at me at 20 miles an hour will stop because the little red light overhead is on. The car in the oncoming lane will stay there, will not swerve into our lane. And so on. It seems to me that this assurance that others will obey the rules must be stronger and more pervasive in a world where cars are normal than where they are unknown. And that confidence, when betrayed, takes its revenge.

On the other hand, terrorism is perhaps less condemned than it might be, because we are all potential terrorists, with our half-ton machines and their combustible fuel. We are desensitized to war, but also to industrial accident, car crashes, exploding gas tanks, airplanes falling out of the sky for no reason. Desensitized–hardened, toughened, less susceptible to impression by the environment. Our nerves go dead. We don’t flinch.

The driver runs back down the sidewalk, her face twisted up in anguish, her cell phone in her ear, calling for the police. “I didn’t see him,” she pleads. “I didn’t see him.”

Frankly, I feel kind of silly about all this. I can hear people saying, “That’s life, get used to it.” And part of me believes that it’s more freeing just to accept it, to refuse to be cowed by the violence that soaks the air around us. But then, another part of me thinks there’s something valuable about my fear. I don’t want to rationalize it, but I also don’t want to pretend my body doesn’t know what it’s talking about. The fear of the everyday–of those tons of metal flying by–is born of a place in me that sees bodies as precious, fragility as praiseworthy, and speed and strength as of limited value. Ultimately, I’ve started to see the fear as anti-authoritarian. It refuses to accept the rules. It’s a reminder of what, in the name of pragmatism, we have sacrificed of our freedom. I think of those kids, who can’t run and explore and wander freely but must stay in line, and I think–I’m glad I’m afraid. Not to be afraid is to dismiss the horrible because it’s too much to think about, because, in the end, we’re afraid of being afraid. Not to be afraid is to surrender.

Weeks later, I will do exactly what that guy did: run out into traffic to catch a bus coming the other way. The cars will screech to a halt, almost colliding with each other, and the bus will sit there on the side of the road while I wait for a break in traffic. Only by then I will have realized that it’s the wrong bus, and be forced to wave the driver on after causing all that trouble. Then I’ll stand there at the bus stop, my body clenching and unclenching as I remind myself how stupid I can be.

At the moment of impact I lunged out of my seat and hollered, “Jesus Christ!” at the top of my lungs. Looking back on it, I feel somewhat shamefaced. I remember a time, probably twenty years ago, riding to school on a snowy day with a couple of friends. I was in the back, and as the car started to slide down the hill toward another car stopped at the intersection, I let out a yell of fear. Both my friends–the driver as well as the other passenger–turned to stare at me, startled by my outburst. We thumped into the other car, nobody was hurt, and I was left to feel silly for getting so scared.

But that was before I’d heard that sound.

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