March 23, 2010
That big sweeping S-curve on Highway 5 just after the Pershing Avenue exit is where this happened. On the northbound side there’s a brown sound wall. The Red Roof Inn is on the other side of the freeway, but don’t look. Don’t get distracted; it’s raining really hard. You know what really hard means on the freeway? The rain beats the wipers in a race for visibility. And the thick spray that shoots up from the tires of trucks and cars in five lanes across of traffic (each way) is just as bad. You get pounded from above and from below, but mostly from straight ahead.
Me and my brother Paul took Mom’s ashes over to El Cerrito to the Sunset View Cemetery (I’m not making up that name to go with this blog) on my last full day in California. It was raining, but it didn’t really pour until evening when I took some papers over to Stockton for Dad to sign.
In the car I was listening to NPR, somebody bitching about something, and, though I take conscientious responsibility for being an informed citizen, I couldn’t take that anymore. I switched to classical music from Sacramento to sooth the savage beast within. Perhaps classical music’s comforting effect saved my life. I’ll give it partial credit.
So dark and pouring that the lights on the Stockton freeway gave no light, headlights looked like fireflies, the red brake lights prismed and strobed, so loud and wet it was like being inside an automatic carwash with no escape, like the metal roof might cave in. Five lanes full of traffic, cars and trucks, flying blind. I’m in the second lane, trying to go as slow as is safe. Alert but with plenty on my mind.
A white SUV streaks across from the fast lane, cuts across all five lanes and, sideways but still skidding forward, is suddenly right in front of me. I watch it careen diagonally skating, spinning clear around, going up on two wheels thirty feet ahead showing me its tender white flank, slamming down gracefully, struggling against the pull of momentum to keep itself from flipping numerous times at seventy miles per hour (killing the occupants and maybe myself), steering into the slide, as they say, and, finally, righting itself in sort of a forward direction by slapping up against the gray car beside mine which ricocheted off to the right banging against the brown stone wall as if attempting to climb it, but not flipping completely over either and coming to rest in the emergency lane, while the culprit white bully caromed off and spun back over to the left and halted against the center divider.
I was at the head of the pack of trucks and cars, pickups and vans watching fate play its hand right in front of us. We couldn’t stop to offer assistance. We couldn't talk it over amongst ourselves. The two cars involved were sitting safe and stopped in opposite off-highway lanes. We came out of our brake-slowly-but-don’t-slam-your-foot-down-or-you’re-dead mode (there’s always a big danger of creating a famous Interstate 5 multi-car pile-up from behind), so we put the foot back on the gas and gingerly pulled forward away into the black tempest. I took the next exit and drove through town a while.
What was I thinking at that slow-motion, surreal moment:
My Mom just died so if I slam into that white side door, who cares?
Nothing to worry about; I have classical music on.
That car is sliding forward sideways at the same speed I’m going, so I’m not actually getting any nearer to it. How weird.
Those two cars just crashed but didn't make any noise.
That driver did something extremely stupid to get into this mess, but he (maybe she) is doing pretty well to get out of it alive. Stunt driving, I’ve seen this on TV.
Am I invincible, immortal?
Brake slow and don’t move that steering wheel. Better to plow right into him than flip your own self. (Remember Don's whole family unharmed thanks to seatbelts after fifteen rolls thanks to an exploding Firestone.)
And lastly, this is going to make a great story.
I watched through the windshield like on a television screen, calm throughout the dream-sequence; panic out-trained from me, as my friends told me happened at the World Series of 1989. 50,000 people kept their seats, waited until the roads cleared, left when called section by section in an orderly fashion. So it does work. All that jumping under your desk at school, the drills. Boy, are we ready for the A-bomb!
The white SUV of Pershing Ave. was a moving target, swimming away from me, not a white buffalo in the middle of the road, ka-bam. It wasn't a ghost either. And it wasn’t O.J. Simpson’s get-away car or the white SUV in the Jennifer Hudson tragedy. But it was a car type that Hollywoodists like. The Stockton country club parking lots are full. Well, I’m glad this one was only scratched up a bit (to say 'you deserve it, ya rich bastard' would be excessive and mean). When I drove back by an hour later both cars were long gone. Yet there is a sort of class struggle symbolized by my 1992 faded gray Toyota avoiding contact with a brand new pearly white luxury car. You don't have ALL the luck.
I’m grasping for meaning, obviously. Many lives could have been ruined forever. Yet, in a sense, I enjoyed the dance, the swoop and swoosh, like full shopping carts on ice, like some Takeshi's Castle game or the planchette on a Ouiji board. I was happy to have had an original experience. Hey, man, there’s something you don’t see every day. Moby Dick up close.
Happy trials, Martin
Mutt: Good thing we'll never run out of math teachers.
Jeff: Why not?
Mutt: Because they always multiply.
Jeff: Old mathematicians never die, they just disintegrate.
Mutt: Old number theorists never die, they just get past their prime.
Jeff: Did you hear? The math professor went crazy with the blackboard. He did a number on it.
Mutt: Don’t interrupt. Old numerical analysts never die, they just get disarrayed.
Jeff: Old bookkeepers never die, they just lose their figures.
Mutt: Old accountants never die, they just lose their balance.
Jeff: You know, if you take a laptop computer for a run you could jog your memory.
Mutt: I know. I used to sell computer parts, but then I lost my drive.
Jeff: Old hardware engineers never die, they just cache in their chips.
Mutt: Old programmers never die, they just branch to a new address.
Jeff: Is it math week or something?
Mutt: No, why?
Jeff: These jokes.
Mutt: What jokes?
(Mutt and Jeff salute Don Pedersen teaching math in a new school and badly in need of new material.)