This morning, en route to work, I stopped as I usually did, several feet ahead of the Stop sign at the foot of my hill. A white Mercedes came cruising from the left and I paused, waiting anxiously for it to pass as I was already half an hour late for work. Through the windshield, I saw two elderly ladies with perfectly coiffed white hair. They smiled at me as they drove past.
“It must be nice to be retired and have nothing to worry about,” I thought. I stepped on the gas and nearly ran over a young female jogger that had come from my left.
I gasped, but not loudly enough to mask the “thump” of her hands on the hood of my car.
“Whoa! Whoa!” she called out, her expression both hostile and incredulous. She hopped backwards just as I placed the car in Park, and before I could open my door or even register the fact that I had just very narrowly missed handicapping her, she resumed her pace, raising her arms and shaking her head in disgust as she jogged away. I sat there for a while, dumbstruck, shaken, horrified.
Where was my mind? Where were my eyes? What was wrong with me?
Jokes of horrible Asian female drivers aside, I am a horrible driver, period. But also terribly lucky – and I say “terribly” because my luck has lent me a false sense of safety. I’ve always felt, smugly, that God, Karma, Fate, were all on my side and their collective protection allowed me to drive with my eyes closed if I wished.
Like most kids in California, I tested for my license at the age of fifteen. Within a few minutes of leaving the DMV, I ran a red light at a freeway intersection and was promptly failed. Disappointed, I didn’t notice that the woman administering the test had lost all color in her face and had pressed herself into her seat back, as though gearing for an asteroid shower, until I pulled us back into the DMV. When I got home, it made for a funny story, but it didn’t dawn on me until years later, when driving past a horrific accident at a similar intersection, the danger I had put us both in.
Soon after I got my license, I took my best friend Charlene and two of our favorite kids from our badminton club out to dinner in a neighboring town, which meant I would need to take the freeway. Their father trusted me, though mentioned before we headed out to “avoid the freeways if [I] was feeling unsure.” I waved away his concern, “Oh don’t worry, Mr. Shu,” I said breezily, “I’m a good driver.”
Years later, avoiding one of many close calls on the freeway with my brother in the passenger seat, my brother would calmly (with hands gripped tightly on the door handle) say to me, “You’re not a bad driver. But you have terrible judgment.”
And this has been my mistake from the very beginning. I mistake my acknowledgement of the rules – knowing when to brake, turn, speed up, slow down – for being a “good driver,” even though I often push those rules to the limit or, when I feel that no one is looking, disregard them altogether. Being a good driver is not only about knowing the mechanics of driving, but also about harboring the mentality of a good driver, in every sense of the word.
Is there such thing as moral driving? Yes. And for the longest time, I did not exercise it except to let people into my lane or by waving ‘thanks’ for the people who let me into theirs. That night so many years ago, I ushered three young, promise-filled lives into my father’s Landcruiser and attempted to get on the freeway. Except it was dark and the freeway signs had been knocked askew from another careless driver and by the time I read that “North” was actually “South,” I was already halfway on the on ramp. In a moment of panicked impatience, I swerved the car to the neighboring on ramp, misjudging the distance between my front right wheel and a center cement divider, though not soon enough – my right wheel struck, making a horrendous cracking noise, but I was on the right freeway. My heart stopped at the sound and for a minute I drove without breathing, wondering if I had damaged the car in anyway, but nothing seemed amiss and I let my breath go, driving at an easy pace towards the theater.
Two minutes later, Howard, who sat in the passenger seat said, “I think you popped your wheel.”
I gripped the steering wheel, slightly irritated that he would joke like that, “Shut up Howard. No I didn’t.”
“I think you did. I feel like this side of the car is sinking down.”
The four of us sat very still, praying that Howard was wrong, but even as I slowly lifted my foot off the pedal, there was an unmistakeable slant towards the front right. The tire was slowly letting out air, deflating with every rotation it made on the freeway and I did not know what to do.
“Stay calm,” Charlene said calmly from the backseat, the same time Howard began to say, “We’re going to die! We’re gonna dieeee!”
I wanted to slap him, but my hands were clenched to the wheel. I immediately thought of the worst case scenario, hours into the future, when I would have to call Mr. Shu and tell him that I had killed both his sons, and that inexplicably, I had survived unscathed. Suddenly the smell of burning rubber filled the car and in a panic, I sped up, forgetting all my common sense or the knowledge that cars had emergency lights and that freeways had shoulders for situations such as this. I could only think to get us off the freeway.
I’m certain that sparks were flying as the tire burned away like flesh from bone, leaving the rims to scrape against the asphalt. A horrific grating, clanking noise alternated with a ferocious whip-like crack as the tire’s remnants snapped in and around – I didn’t know what was going on with that front right wheel, to be honest, I only hoped that it wouldn’t catch fire or fall completely off. As I do when I drive, I placed trust not in myself, but in other drivers to steer clear of me. Perhaps I was screaming. Perhaps angry drivers honked at me. I heard nothing but the clanking and the snapping and my own thoughts, half begging myself to somehow get us off the freeway and half screaming that speeding up on a flat tire was akin to throwing gasoline on a raging fire. I prayed to the wheel: you can explode into smithereens if that’s how you want to end the night, just wait for us to get out of the car.
I peeled off and into, of all places, a Del Taco whose parking lot was littered with degenerate teen-aged boys on fixed-gear bikes. Their jaws dropped when they saw my car and one of them, balanced expertly on his bike as though in a photograph, said in a half-joking tone, “Uh, I think you’re missing a tire.”
Until then my heart had been racing, and still it pounded, but we were alive. At least the danger was over. I stepped out and went round to the right side – the tire was completely gone except for a tiny scrap of rubber that hung onto a ragged edge of rim, which itself looked as though it had been chewed by round the edges by a beast with diamond teeth. Even with my limited knowledge of cars and their parts, I assumed there was something wrong with the alignment – I looked up at the gleaming del Taco sign and around at the loose, carefree kids on their simple bikes, tires intact. There was no driving the Landcruiser that night.
My father is, when others are in distress, a remarkably calm man. He was at a dinner party that night and when I called to tell him the bad news – that I had mauled his favorite car and placed other people in considerable danger – he simply said, “Are you alright? Is everyone all right?” Yes and yes. I imagined him leaning back into his chair, “Good. Just leave the car there and tell Guh to pick you guys up.”
My brother, equally calm, came riding in like a heroic limo service and drove us to the movie theater where we managed to make it to the showing we’d planned on seeing.
Jack and Howard thought the whole episode hilarious, a story they looked forward to sharing with friends at school and Charlene shrugged, saying, “It could happen to anyone.” Even Mr. Shu had little to say in terms of chastisement.
“Didn’t I say to avoid the freeways,” he joked the next day at the badminton club, then, seeing the horrified look on my face, patted me on the back, “Oh don’t worry, you just need more practice.”
Now nine years later I have run countless red lights (though have only been ticketed for one), hit the side of a house so that the old lady living alone inside came out and said, clutching her heart, “I thought it was Armageddon!”), sped (and only been ticketed once), popped my tire twice on poorly executed right turns (endless thanks to my brother for his prompt and patient road-side assistance), scraped a half dozen parking-lot beams, broken our sprinkler system multiple times by backing out over the lawn (if my father knows, he has been uncharacteristically silent about this), run into my father’s parked car on the driveway, and now, bumped into a jogger in broad daylight on an otherwise none too busy street. My “luck” is still with me, but it’s wearing thin. So thin that I can see the other side, though the view is often marred by steel bars.
A jogger is not a lawn or beam or my father’s car, but a real-live human being with reflexes and emotions. With family and friends and goals, such as training for a marathon, which the jogger might have been doing and from which I might have taken her if I had stepped on the gas a bit sooner or panicked in another way and caused some wires in my brain to cross and recross. I thank her for slapping the hood of my car and for the daggers her eyes sent me. I needed that wake-up call. Driving, I was on the verge of forgetting, is a whole brain exercise. I’m going back to basics – looking both ways, putting my phone away and most importantly putting more trust and responsibility in myself to do the right thing and exercise judgment rather than rely on others to avoid me.