Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cadillac Lady

For the folks out there thinking that all is lost, that America has reached the end of the line, and that secession should no longer be thought of as a dirty word, I’d like to relate a little incident that happened to me a few days ago.  It may not change your mind about the imminent demise of the republic, but you might feel like at least it doesn’t have to happen today.   

So it’s Thursday, and Thursdays are my favorite day.  After dropping Jessica off at school, I drive Maria out to my mom and dad’s house, and they watch her while I come home and write, alone, uninterrupted, for five or six hours in a row.  Alone.  Uninterrupted.  In a row.  It’s the closest thing to a realization of my dream working life I’ve got.  It hasn’t actually gone that way the last three weeks or so, but today was going to be different.  I could feel it. 

We had already taken daughter number one to school and were driving west on Cactus Road, following the usual route for getting daughter number two to Grandma and Grandpa’s place in Sun City.  We are stopped by the light at 51st Ave and wait there, first in line when the light turns green.  Maria is in her car seat in the back, pestering me to imitate Toby, the snobby, spectacle-wearing, robot-obsessed villain from the PBS show WordGirl.  Toby is her latest crush (I believe I’ve mentioned before about her unsettling tendency to crush on bad guys), and I’ve managed to work up a passable impersonation of the nerdy lad’s voice.  Plus I already have the glasses.  She likes my Toby so much that she is constantly after me to be him.  This time I try to put her off by professing my love for the song on the radio, singing really loudly along with it, effectively drowning out her pleas.  While I’m singing, I’m also thinking about what I’m going to do with my writing time once I get back home.   I can do these two things simultaneously, unlike trying to think and channel Toby, which is mainly why I’m putting her off. 

I decide I’m going to split my writing time into two equal chunks, spending one half working on my current blog post (not this one – the inspiration for this one hadn’t occurred to me yet, although it was about to), and the other half working on the Hercules novel.  I feel like I’m really on a roll with the book, and anxious to continue building momentum.  Two to three hours on the blog, and the rest on the book.  It sounded like the makings of a beautiful day. 

Still waiting for the light to change, I look ahead and see the canal that cuts diagonally across Cactus Road just past the intersection.  The road arches over the canal by means of a low bridge, rising up just high enough to partially obstruct the view of road ahead.  I feel excited, impatient to get home and start working.  When the light finally changes, I urge the car forward with that special kind of freedom a driver feels only when there’s nothing in front of him but open road. 

I accelerate as we pass over the bridge and down the long descending slant on the far side, still working up to city cruising speed, which for me is intuitively calibrated to be no more than nine miles over the posted speed limit, but without conscious thought often lapses into eleven or twelve.  Then I see a black Cadillac CTS approaching from the opposite direction.  I notice it not because of the kind of car it is, but because its headlights flash once, emitting a piercing blue-white burst of xenon, or pulsar, or whatever it is they’re using in high-end headlights these days.  I was still wondering at the brightness of the flash when it happens again, and then three times in quick succession:  flash, flash, flash.  It was like the driver was trying to communicate something urgent in Morse code.  The Cadillac swoops by us in a second, and as it passes I see a lipsticked, sunglassed woman behind the wheel.  It takes a longer second for the meaning of those flashes to sink in.  I respond, pressing on the brake pedal, not hard, but enough to cause the speedometer to reverse course, and start scanning the right-hand side of the road.  Sure enough, about a quarter mile ahead, tucked in amongst the mounds of lantana and the citrus trees, is one of Glendale’s finest, perched on his motorcycle, holding a radar gun that is pointed directly at us. 

As it turned out, none of us were in any real danger of being caught speeding egregiously, because the stoplight at 55th Ave was turning red anyway, forestalling all efforts to really haul ass.  But the woman in the black Cadillac didn’t know that.  Had the circumstances been slightly different, her warning flashes may have been what saved someone from getting a speeding ticket that morning.  As one of the front-runners in this little wave of vehicles, I am keenly aware that that someone could easily have been me. 

As I wait for this light to change, I am warmed by a feeling of gratitude towards this complete stranger.  I look over at the officer, who has lost all interest in us, and is focused only on the bridge behind us, waiting for the next group of unsuspecting drivers to hurdle over.  I smile and think, Thanks, Cadillac Lady. I owe you one.

I look around with benevolence at my fellow drivers, something I rarely do. It feels good, knowing there are people around who still try to tip each other off to traffic cops with radar guns.  

Alright, so maybe what Cadillac Lady did wasn’t exactly earth-shattering in importance.  But speeding tickets suck.  Cadillac Lady knew that, and she went out of her way to try and spare someone else a little pain, a little aggravation.  She didn’t have to, but she did.  And the funny thing is, her small, single act of kindness had the immediate effect of making me feel better, not only about Cadillac owners, but about everyone around me. 

There’s a classic line in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when Jimmy Stewart says, “I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.”  I’ve always been extremely fond of that line, because I think it’s true, and because, too often, I think it’s missing. 

I know some good-hearted, well-meaning people who are waiting for the next big calamity to strike our country, thinking that the next one will be the one that brings us back together again, the one that finally wakes us up to the fact that we are all better than we’ve been behaving lately.  Yet, when our nation suffers a godsmack of a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, it only unites us for what?  Two days?  Thirty-six hours?   We ought to be ashamed by what this tells us, but for some reason we’re not. 

Maybe part of the problem is that we’re looking in all the wrong places for a solution to this mess we’re in.  Maybe the renewal of civility and respect doesn’t come about with a bang, or with a flood, or an earthquake, or dustbowl, or blizzard.  Maybe it can only start with the little things, a smile instead of a glare, a nod instead of deathly indifference, an occasional flash of the headlights that says, I don’t know you, but I’ve got your back.  Maybe we could stand to give each other a little more breathing room, a little more benefit of the doubt, and not automatic, preemptive suspicion. 

Maybe in the end what we really need to reawaken our sense of solidarity, to give this country of ours a new birth of common cause isn’t a natural disaster, or another war, or a cataclysmic event of any kind. 

Maybe all we really need are more Cadillac Ladies.

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