Driving Mr. Jingo
by John Vlahides

image of virgin mary statuette around which it says 'break your guns'.

Road rage returned to San Francisco on September 24th, one day before the New York Times dropped its two-week-long run of banner headlines about the fall-out of September 11th‹The Attacks, as they've come to be known. For a brief time, while the country reeled with grief and dismay, motorists all over Northern California practiced good driving habits en masse, observing posted speed limits, stopping at crosswalks, waving merging cars into their lanes, not blowing horns or giving the finger, but smiling and nodding at others as they passed. We had been collectively forced to consider the horrific and simultaneous deaths of thousands of strangers who lived far away, and we seemed to realize the value in the lives of all strangers because of it, including those now before us in our day-to-day lives. Few of us had suffered any tangible loss--excluding those by degree of separation--and impotent to help those most in need, unable to participate in the local relief efforts in New York City, we turned to each other for solace. We practiced kindness. Everyone seemed suddenly a Buddhist.

Then, at 11:37am on the 24th, right around the time that President Bush announced to the nation that it was time to stop mourning and get back to the business of our daily lives, a man crossing the western span of the Bay Bridge in a small pick-up truck died instantly when a steel panel fell from a Caltrans construction site above the roadway, crushing the vehicle and its occupant. Four of the six east-bound lanes closed for much of the day, while structural engineers and highway patrolmen investigated the scene. Because the blame lay with the State and extensive checks of the entire construction site needed to be made, the lane closures persisted throughout the day, well into the evening rush hour. Traffic up and down the Peninsula snarled, with San Francisco's city streets jammed the worst. Engines idled, tempers flared, horns wailed, and back we went to the old status quo of irrational, volatile, self-righteous behavior behind the wheel. We forgot about one another.

I live atop a hill on a two-lane side street that once was a secret short-cut to the freeway; now everyone knows about it. Bumper-to-bumper cars line up in the morning and afternoon, and it can take five minutes or more to make it down the block. At about two o'clock on the 24th, I walked out of my apartment building just in time to see a man in a Ford Taurus with an American flag on its antenna pull out of the stopped line of vehicles and into the empty, on-coming lane of traffic. He was about to drive the wrong way down the steep incline, and if a pedestrian who logically looked to his left for approaching traffic had stepped into the roadway--a common occurrence, for there is a school in the middle of the block--the driver, unable to stop the momentum of his two-thousand-pound family sedan, would most certainly have struck and killed him. I shouted Hey! What are you, crazy?! He gave me the finger, then sped down the hill, the tiny flag fluttering in the rush of air, the edges of its thin poly-cotton fabric tattered, its colors already faded in just two short weeks.


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