On Driving and Turning Thirty
By Efraín Grietta
I contacted the Rift and said I was interested in writing something. What are you interested in writing? They said. Well, I don't know. I'm angry about a lot of things and I am turning thirty soon. Ok, so how does that make you feel? They asked. And I thought about it.
This December, I will have thirty years walking the Earth, breathing, eating, taking and using energy, participating in the big entropy game. Out of 10,950 potential dreams I’ve had, I remember maybe ten. The culture tells me it’s a big deal, a kind of past your prime moment. So although life expectancies keep getting higher, somehow people that are thirty call themselves old. I’ve heard people turning twenty six say they were old. Other than my knees cracking occasionally, I don’t know that I associate with that word yet.
The truth is getting old doesn’t scare me anymore than getting into a car with a buddy who’s had a few beers scares me. Come on, you’ve done it too. It’s a fact of life (the aging, not the getting into a car. Although both probably) I’ve always wondered actually if when police drive by a bar on a Saturday night they actually believe that every one of those cars has a designated driver. It’s a beautiful example of how delusional Americans are. The cop drives by the Black Market parking lot, or past the Hope and Anchor, sees a ton of cars and says to himself, alright, all looks good here. Hidden in plain sight. Just like the money in politics.
But we’re good at that. We’re good at turning a blind eye at certain things and scrupulously analyzing others. We’re good at blaming Mexico for all the violence, but less likely to admit that it’s because Americans function better under some kind of influence. And we want our influence fast, cheap, and readily available, just like we want our WiFi.
I would argue Americans are quite good at steering while under the influence. We are, after all, a highly medicated society, so at any given point a good percentage of the drivers on the road are probably on something anyway. Zoloft. Aterol. Pot. Cocaine. Beer. Yellow Tail wine. Children's cough syrup. If you’re a typical person, you have driven under the influence. I know very respected people who do it on a daily basis, but we all hate to admit it.
But back to the aging thing. I was once in a car with someone who had a seizure while driving. I was working with a group of underprivileged children and it was Bowling day, so me and this young woman were sent out to get pizzas or something and we got into her car. We were in NorthEast El Paso, which I am not familiar with and she was driving and everything was normal when I noticed that she was veering into oncoming traffic and off the road. Cars honking, swerving out of our way. I looked at her, she was stiff as a board. I thought: the bitch had a heart attack and now she is dead. For some strange reason, for a moment, I pictured myself explaining this to my boss.
I was trapped in the car. She was silent at first, but then she started mumbling, so I asked her if she was ok and she kept rambling on about random things. She had stopped blinking. I could do nothing other than try to lean over and steer the wheel slowly to the right direction and hoped she didn't make any sudden movements. When she snapped out of it she told me she had seizures often and I couldn't help but notice two child seats in the back. This woman drives her kids to school everyday.
The reason I bring that up is because that’s how things felt to me for a long time. As if someone else was steering, but they were under some influence (like a seizure) and I was mostly a passenger hoping for the best. And in some ways, that has been my life. As a kid you’re not even allowed to go in the front. And looking back, in my twenties I was a passenger, at best a passenger leaning over trying to control the wheel or merely looking out the window, influenced out of my mind. That’s changed now.
When you are twenty and you have a few beers you get into a car and think you are invincible. In fact, you don’t even need a few beers. You get into a car and you are invincible; the speed arouses you in some strange way, it gives you a high that even that cute girl in your Philosophy class doesn’t compare to. When you are thirty and have had a few beers, you put on classical music at a respectable volume to keep you focused, you check your mirrors, you drive the speed limit and stay on the right lane. That’s what getting older is like. There is more awareness, there is a respect and acceptance of the danger and the stupidity, but also an appreciation for it.
One can learn a thing or two about a person’s character by how they drive. If you drive with one hand most of the time, you are a romantic. If you drive with two hands you are practical and probably have good credit. If you frequently eat while driving, you probably hate your job.
I’ve become hyper-aware that I’m not driving alone, that every other car carries with it infinite possibilities. And for example you imagine that Jeep coming behind you at light speed is most likely an influenced twenty year old feeling invincible or a rich person with good insurance, both of which you resent a little. So depending on your mood you either get out of the way or get in his way to fuck with him, but regardless you shake your head and think of how much wiser you are. Or you watch that Mustang that is coming at full speed switching lanes without using his turn signals, cutting people off, and you think to yourself: I have to say something. So you slow down enough so the car gets stuck behind you and is unable to pass due to an eighteen wheeler on the other side and you see him going from side to side fishtailing you as if saying, “Speed up asshole.”
“Like that?” you say looking into your rear view mirror as you slow down to 50mph.
And you try to explain to him, " you can’t always get what you want, the road does not bend itself to your whim. You must learn patience and compassion. "
But the Mustang isn't listening, he simply yells, “Get out of my way fuckhead.”
To which your respond, perfectly aware that you are driving a white Corolla, “You know, Mustangs are bitch cars.”
This makes him furious and he gets even closer to you, getting in your face and you feel sorry for him because his destination is probably nowhere more important than your destination. You’re heading to Sprouts to pickup some organic tomatoes and Greek yogurt. Perhaps he is going to get laid. And honestly at thirty, those two things are almost the same to you, so it doesn't make a bit of difference. Eventually he passes, but you feel accomplished. You've taught someone something.
I have learned to appreciate my environment. I often slow down to gaze at how the sky looks against the city of Juarez, or how an oddly shaped cloud is hovering over the mountain, and sometimes it takes me below sixty miles per hour on the highway and I don’t realize it until I see someone cut me off. I always apologize to them, but also wish that they too take the time to appreciate the sun as it's setting in the distance.
Often, I take the long way home because I get to see a cool house, or because I’ll pass that steakhouse that permeates the air with deliciousness. Driving has become more about the act itself, about respecting the risk, embracing it, but also about making possibilities, about learning new routes, and knowing that you can, in fact, make an impact in the world. You can, for example, hit the brakes unexpectedly and cause a crash. I like having that power. At the same time, I've become acutely aware that everyone else can do the same.
Thus, I've become a DEFENSIVE driver, one that is vigilant of the others, one that is conscious of the speed limits and the rules and the corners where traffic cops are most likely to be. I respect the rules when I have to and break them when I can. I pay attention to the car in front of me as it swerves and I wonder if they are on their phone. Usually that's the case and its a driver of the female sex, but if I expand on that gender point, I’ll open a can of worms I am uninterested in engaging with.
The word defensive is important because at thirty, you don’t trust anybody, everybody around you is potentially under some influence and therefore unpredictable.
When I’m influenced, (and I influence myself many different ways, sometimes unconventionally) I fix my posture and I step into this overly cautious version of myself, that is watching all directions. An influenced me a decade ago, would have been sitting in the passenger seat laughing as my equally influenced driver sped up and pretended to be Tyler Durden.
And perhaps most sadly of all, driving has become a social activity. When I go days without socially interacting, which I often do because of my job, driving is a strange substitute for it. When giving people the right of way in a busy intersection, I feel like I've opened the door for a lady, when I let someone pass, I've helped an elderly person cross the street.
Sometimes though I get a strange streak of pessimism. I feel very distinctly that someone on the road next to me is actually going somewhere important and I am simply driving, slowing down to see that pretty girl walking her dog while the car behind me is a doctor driving to save someone’s life or a teacher heading to school to inspire a kid to follow his dream. Or a father driving to pick up his son. And somehow it feels like nothing in my life is urgent, like nothing is at stake. America calls me a millennial, which is synonymous for lazy educated person without responsibilities, in debt and living with their parents. I am not living with my parents, but I do have debt. (I do not like the phrase "I am in debt" because it suggests that the debt is part of me, that I am in it, rather than it simply belonging to me. It's merely something I have, like my television or a couch, except the negative. Something that is not there.) Most of the time though, it certainly feels like everyone else has more important things going on. They drive to get to a place where they are expected, needed. At twenty, I was a passenger, observing everything, influenced, innocent, and wild. At thirty, I've taken the wheel, but while everyone else is going somewhere I’m just driving to forty.