“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”
–Hazel Motes, the self-blinded preacher in “Wise Blood,” by Flannery O’Connor.
All my life I was crazy about cars, starting with the family Studebaker designed by Raymond Loewy that looked like one of the World War II fighter planes I drew all over my school notebooks. Within days after turning 16, like every other middle-class American kid growing up anywhere but Manhattan, I got my driver’s license and took off. And so began a vast archive of car memories, moments and places recalled through bug-spattered, rain-streaked, sun-dried glass. I assumed the trip would never end.
But, unknown to me, the encoding in my DNA was relentlessly transmitting suicide instructions to my eyes, one of a class of genetic retinal pathologies called retinitis pigmentosa. Which led, after a few decades of normal vision, to a state where I could no longer see at night or make out faces from more a few feet away, and that under direct light.
For reading and writing, there were optical magnifiers and a computer program that enlarged the text on my monitor. For driving, though, there was nothing, no clever new adaptive technology, no compensatory strategy, nothing but the prospect of relinquishment.
I couldn’t imagine a life without wheels. So, holding my breath and trusting to luck and reflexes, I stayed on the road. . . a little too long.
The phone on the night stand rang, shattering my last dream of the morning.
“Hullo,” I mumbled, peering over at my clock radio with the jumbo two inch high red LED display. Just past 6:30.
It was the woman from the Substitute Unit of the L.A. Unified School District, brisk and focused as a taxi dispatcher.
I didn’t know how much more substitute teaching I could take. I couldn’t make out the students’ faces beyond the front row. I couldn’t, without assistance, read roll sheets, notes from the office, textbook passages or handed-in assignments.
But even more upsetting was the sheer ordeal of simply getting to work. By this time, my eyesight was severely compromised. Traffic signals had started vanishing and reappearing–the whole signal box, not just the bulbs-as if conjured in and out of sight by mischievous sprites. Street signs were unreadable. Cars loomed up at me out of nowhere, and pedestrians materialized in the middle of empty crosswalks.
The woman from the Sub Unit read my assignment from a sheet on her desk. I was to fill in for an English teacher at a middle school halfway downtown.
Straight into the sun. Another harrowing commute.
Why, you might reasonably ask, would someone with vision so impaired persist in driving? Romance. Practicality. Pride. Denial.
When I was a teenager, I had a stack of Hot Rod and Custom Car magazines that dwarfed everything else in my bedroom bookcase. I pored lovingly over the pictures: the burly postwar Fords, the lean mid-’50s Chevys, the gleaming bodies shaved clean of jutting Detroit chrome, the running gear pumped up and re-machined to burn the rear treads off a set of Goodyears in a single standing start.
The cars in my real life were less fierce, less perfect. But so what? They started, they ran, they carried me down the highway of dreams. Like the ’41 Chevy coupe I drove to Mexico from Ohio in1966, vaporizing a quart of oil every hundred miles all the way to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato State, and back. Like the VW microbus with its salt-rotted floorboard that carried me over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco a year later during the Summer of Love.
Now I had a 10-year-old Tercel that took me anywhere I wanted to go, with the tape deck blasting Los Lobos or Mozart or Coltrane. Driving wasn’t everything, just life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the promise that I would never, ever grow old, that I would not fade away.
If I stopped driving, what would I do? There is just a beleaguered fleet of buses roaming L.A., trying gamely to run on time and connect at enough points to be useful. True, there are also two new light-rail commuter lines and the halting start of a subway system. But the rail service, by design, has little to do with in-town travel.
Ask an Angeleno (who drives) how far it is from here to there when both ends of the trip are in town. “Twenty minutes,” goes the most common answer, with the inevitable addendum, “unless it’s rush hour.” Car time. But if you don’t drive, a morning doctor’s appointment in Beverly Hills, a business lunch in West Hollywood, a five-minute stop at an office supply store on the Miracle Mile and a trip to the supermarket become agenda items spread over several pages of a weekly calendar.
I had always assumed that you rode the bus in L.A. only if you were not a player, not a contender. Riding the bus meant being sucked into a symbolic, bottomless vortex of personal failure. I was terrified.
I did stop using my car at night, which often meant staying home alone. But that was the lowest I was willing to bow to circumstances.
The question arises as to whether an individual with impaired vision is morally obligated, even with some functional sight remaining, to stop driving. There are some people with RP who even insist that their retinal pathologies make them safer drivers, because they are forced to be more vigilant.
In my case, denial was abetted by a sympathetic ophthalmologist and the California Department of Motor Vehicles. I managed to get my driver’s license renewed solely on the strength of a note from the doctor attesting to my fitness to drive. This in the face of my inability to decipher anything below the top two lines of the DMV eye chart.
I had the Beverly Boulevard route to the school pretty much hammered from long experience. Whether I could see the traffic lights at first glance or not, I knew which cross streets had them, and I’d become pretty good at telling the color of a light by watching traffic.
I made it through all the major intersections-La Brea, Highland, Vine, Western-like a champ, talking myself down the road. The lettering on the store signs, the big ones I could still see, went from English to Korean to Spanish.
At Vermont, I took a right, went two blocks, and there was the school. Praying that a phantom 18-wheeler wasn’t bearing down through one of my blind spots to pulverize me in mid-turn, I took a left into the street and began to peer along the curb for a parking space. Across from me, headed the other way, was a short line of double-parked cars, parents dropping off their kids. I couldn’t have been going 10 mph.
Suddenly. The sickening thud of my front bumper hitting flesh and bone. My right foot coming off the gas and slamming down on the brake pedal. The car stopped just short of an airborne boy, maybe 12 or 13, levitating a few inches above the pavement as his unzipped nylon school bag launched itself from his shoulder and spewed notebooks, pencils and personal effects all over the street.
The kid lay sprawled in a heap on the pavement. A car door slammed somewhere off to my left, and then a woman, his mother, was kneeling beside him, crooning and fussing, her face a mask of incredulous fury completely at odds with her tender ministrations.
By the time I managed to turn off the engine and get out, she had helped him hobble back to their old Toyota sedan and lowered him onto the back seat, where he sat with the door still flung open, dazed and splay-limbed, holding his back. It never even occurred to me to go and see how the boy was, I felt so shaken, so ashamed, so uninvited. I just stood next to my car, watching as people emerged from nowhere. Someone went to a phone and called 911, and then sirens came speeding toward us up the avenue.
The paramedics lifted the kid onto a gurney, asking him questions and taking his vital signs. As the mother stood behind the ambulance watching them shove the gurney inside, I finally got up the nerve to approach her. She was talking in Spanish with a man who had come over from the auto body shop across the school.
“Lo siento, senora” I said. “Lo siento mucho. I’m very sorry. She wouldn’t even look at me. The man from the body shop wasn’t so reticent. “I seen it, man,” he snarled. “You seen him and you just keep going.” And I thought, yes, that’s exactly what it must have looked like.
They took the boy to a hospital emergency room, and the bystanders drifted away. I found a parking space and waited on the curb for the LAPD, who showed up an hour later to take the accident report.
“I just didn’t see him,” I admitted, which was true. The officer didn’t ask me anything about that, but simply said the kid shouldn’t have jaywalked in front of my car, which was also true. She got my signature, tore off a copy of the report for me, and drove away.
Somebody told me they knew in the school office what had happened. If I wanted, I could go home. I did want to go home. Desperately.
I got back into my car, fastened my seat belt, started the engine, felt how much I was shaking, and turned it off. I went into the office, borrowed the phone, and got my friends Adrian and Gina out of bed out in Marina del Rey. Adrian drove me home, with Gina following, and put the Tercel back its space behind my apartment.
I filed reports with my insurance company and the DMV. Then I called the school district and requested that I be called only for assignments that were a walk or a direct bus ride from home. The request was denied. So much for substitute teaching.
The next few weeks, I spent a lot of time in my apartment, only leaving home for errands I could accomplish on foot. I tried taking the car out one more time to the neighborhood Laundromat. But even that short trip, eight blocks up and back, unnerved me.
So, finally facing facts, I put the car up for sale and surrendered my driver’s license for a California ID card, which looked, photo and all, exactly like my license and bore the same number they had given me 25 years before at a San Francisco DMV office, next to Golden Gate Park, where the Grateful Dead played for nothing from flatbed trucks and everything was new and infinitely possible.
No one ever contacted me about the accident. Not my insurance company, not the school or the DMV, not a personal injury lawyer. I felt justified in assuming-thankfully-that the boy wasn’t hurt too badly.
But still, every time I think about it, my hands remember the weird, rubber shock of the impact through the steering , and I see the whole thing all over again. The boy bouncing off the hood of the Tercel in slow motion. The books flying. The gurney sliding into the open mouth of the ambulance. The rage and disbelief on his mother’s face. Some things, some of us only learn the hard way.
Lo siento, senora. Lo siento mucho.
First published in the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style Section, Thursday, March 6, 1997. Reprinted by permission of the author.