My attitude about cars is so bad, it’s a wonder I was never hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Cars and I do not get along. Eight or nine have perished or come close while in my custody: a few times, I swear it was suicide. For my part, these automotive tragedies arise from inattention, impatience, ignorance or a combination of all three. On the part of the cars, it’s been nothing but sheer, bloody-mindedness.
The first car I wrecked was a little tan Honda, or maybe it was a Toyota. My girlfriend was supposed to give a lecture at Bennington College in Vermont; only, we were in New York. We couldn’t afford to rent a car and the only one I could find to borrow had a manual transmission, which Josea, an Angeleno through and through, didn’t know how to operate. I could drive a stick, but there were a few things missing from my portfolio—a driver’s license prominent
It was a January morning in, I think, 1974. It had rained all night and the temperature was barely above freezing: did you know water is most slippery immediately before it freezes? We had just passed through the first toll barrier on the New York State Thruway north of the City and I was beginning to accelerate, when Poof!—the steering vanished. I took my foot off the gas pedal and somehow refrained from reflexively stomping the brake, which avoided making things worse, but Newton’s First Law of Motion—“an object in motion tends to remain in motion until an external force is applied”—was not to be denied.
The little tan car skidded left, banged into the highway divider, rebounded across the traffic lanes into the right-hand side barrier, bounced again, spun around completely, re-crossed the traffic lanes and scraped its way down the central divider until, apparently, sufficient “external force [had been] applied.” It was early enough on a rotten enough day that there was virtually no traffic. The solitary car that passed through the toll plaza behind us came to our aid.
I was physically unscathed, but Josea’s shoulder was badly bruised: dozing, she had been jerked about with no chance to brace. If she hadn’t been seat-belted in, it could have been lots worse. Periodically, though, I’d hear “You this, and you that, and you nearly killed me on the New York State Thruway,” until we broke up for good five or six years later.
The car came out looking like hell, but once the fenders were pulled off the wheels, it took us the rest of the way to Vermont and back to New York. I never could decide how I’d felt about the adrenaline rush. The older I get, the more my brain says: “Scary.” Back then it might have been leaning towards: “Exhilarating!” I thought I knew how to drive. I’d learned on a tractor with no first gear on an Israeli kibbutz east of Tel Aviv. God forbid if someone forgot to park it on a slope the night before. Jumping it wasn’t an option: rolling it downhill in second was the only way. I no longer recollect why I thought this qualified me to drive on a U.S. highway in the middle of winter. I was trying to impress a new girlfriend: I don’t suppose thinking entered into it.
For the next eight years I had enough sense not to get behind a steering wheel again. But, if going carless in New York, Paris, the Amazon, or India was no great inconvenience, when I arrived in North County San Diego in 1981, even the inconvenient public buses quit running by 8:30 at night. I took driving lessons from Sears, then had the use of a colleague’s powder blue Chevy Chevette while he was on overseas sabbatical. The only bad thing I did to it was to back into the bumper of a pickup truck and break a taillight lens. As I recollect, replacing one lens in 1981 cost half as much as all the body work in 1974.
Frozen water also cost me my second wrecked car, a silver Mazda RX7, lost on black ice in Portland, Oregon. All my previous (legal) driving had been in Southern California: black ice wasn’t even a concept. During the exceptionally cold winter of 1984, I was preparing to enter an elevated highway after a full stop, accelerating to reach highway speed by the time I reached the top of the on ramp. The materiality of all those “Bridge freezes before roadway” signs came home when the car swerved radically left and smashed into the support wall.
Toasting cars has been as much of a bane for me as smashing them up on ice. I’d had to replace the Mazda’s engine when it overheated for lack of lubricant: no one had told me that rotaries routinely burned oil. The red VW Rabbit that replaced the Mazda went up in flames when the fuel filter detached from the fuel line, spilling gasoline across the hot engine block—tell me that wasn’t a faulty design. The racing green ’67 Karmann Ghia that followed threw a rod and fried a cylinder. That was almost a blessing. Its corroded exhaust system leaked so badly that every time I drove it, I inhaled as much carbon monoxide as if I’d smoked a pack of cigarettes.
When I moved from Portland to Oregon’s southern coast in 1994, I lived seven miles outside of town. It was downhill ride with a tailwind into Gold Beach in the morning, but the bike from work was a kind of hell. I bought my friend’s Vanagon and soon discovered why it had sat around so long. It regularly threw its fan belt and eventually it too fried a cylinder. That might not even have been the worst thing about driving a six foot high, underweight van on the Oregon Coast. Once, coming around the sharp curve south of Humbug Mountain, I was sideswiped so hard by the long-shore wind that I changed lanes without steering; loose gravel on the same stretch of Coast Highway took out the Ford Tempo that succeeded the Vanagon, though, not until I’d had to replace the self-immolating wiring harness. But, the story I really want to tell is about the wreck of my next car, a pretty, red 1997 Ford Escort wagon—the first and only brand-new car I’ve ever owned—and how it got me hauled into court. By my own insurance company!
It was after the start of the 2001 school year, but not winter yet—I don’t recollect the date. I was driving to Portland from the state capitol in Salem, maybe forty-five miles, to attend an evening meeting. I took a shortcut through a residential neighborhood I’d taken many times before. I was at least three quarters of the way to a corner where I knew there was a stop sign and I was braking accordingly. Boom! The next thing I knew, my glasses were askew, there was white powder everywhere and the emergency airbag was deflating in my lap. A driver pulled out from the curb at some speed apparently without looking, smashing into my front wheel well.
The Escort was undrivable but could be repaired. The insurance covered most of the costs; a friend’s body shop generously absorbed the deductible. I wasn’t injured; I just got on with my life. But, within six months, the Escort was hit again. As I was making a left turn at a rural T-intersection, a Volvo came over the hill moving too fast, plowing into my driver’s-side door. A Ford versus a Volvo? It wasn’t even a fair fight.
I replaced the Escort with a Subaru and also applied for a research position at the University of California, San Francisco. On my way out of Oregon in September, I met my friend’s son at the U-Haul dealer, sold him my Outback at a steep discount, and drove home in a rental truck. The next day I loaded it up with the help of two neighbor boys and began a leisurely drive south. Not wanting to enter San Francisco during the evening rush, I stopped early at a motel in Mill Valley on the third day … and almost took off the concrete roof of a covered parking structure. In San Francisco, where the only time an off-road vehicle is ever driven off the road is when it’s parked on the sidewalk, I didn’t bother to keep a car.
Salem, however, wasn’t finished with me; I was summoned back by my insurance company in the fall of 2004. The young man who had driven into me on the residential street was under some kind of pressure to deny his responsibility—I suspect his driver’s license might have been on the line. His insurance company was threatening to sue mine; mine was refusing to settle. The attorney believed they were being extorted so we were all headed for court.
I knew I wasn’t to blame, that the physical evidence backed me up, but I was anxious about whether I’d be believed if my own driving record became an issue. The insurance company lawyer never asked about it: I reasoned that either he didn’t want to know, or it wasn’t admissible in this kind of trial. I remained nervous, though I needn’t have been.
The court looked pretty much like all the courts you’ve seen on television. Lots of blonde wood in a style that was called ‘Modern’ a long, long time ago. Flags, it seemed, were everywhere as were men in suits. Even I was wearing one.
On the witness stand I gave my name, my age, fifty-six, and my occupation, “I’m a research scientist at the University of California, San Francisco,” I said.
“Were you employed at the time of the accident?” the lawyer asked.
“I was the tobacco control educator for the Marion County Health Department,” I replied.
“Tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of whatever the whatever,” the lawyer requested. I told where I was coming from, where I was going, how I’d used this street before and knew to be slowing for the stop sign at the corner. I said I wasn’t too sure about the details of the collision, it all happened so fast: my car stalled out because I’d never even had the chance to shift into neutral. My car ended up almost against the left-hand curb with the other car piled into my front passenger door and wheel well.
I probably could have stopped with my age and occupation. The other driver was twenty-two, unemployed, a community-college dropout and a liar. When he claimed to have been on his way to classes on the evening of the accident, my insurance company’s lawyer showed he’d actually dropped out three weeks earlier.
Three-quarters of U.S. drivers regularly assert they are above average. Since this seems mathematically impossible, I have to wonder if it isn’t a reversed instance of the Bill Gates effect—that’s when the income of the single billionaire in the room jacks up the average for everyone. Could my driving be so exponentially awful it lowers the average for everyone else?
Nathaniel Wander’s story is excerpted from a memoir-in-progress, “You Are Here–X: Tales from the Evolution of an Anthropologist.” Stories excerpted from two chapters of this manuscript have recently been accepted for publication.