Accidental Activist

Driving Me Crazy

Ben Bull explores the ups and downs of his many rocky relationships with cars over the years (first of two parts).

By Ben Bull
Published October 07, 2005

My three amigos were waiting nervously in the car park. An urgent cell call had alerted them to my ridiculous predicament. Nearly there now...

The nutcase behind me continued to lunge toward my rear end, shaking his fist and blaring his horn. What a way to get to work! My sudden dash for the exit had failed to shake him off. In fact it had just made him angrier.

What was I thinking back there? Why didn't I just let him go?

I thought back to my first road rage incident a few years before: gritting my teeth and holding my breath as some trailer park nut in a brown Toyota threw himself at my car. I made a vow there and then never to raise a finger in anger again.

But yet here I was, heading for a car park rendevous and an almost certain beating.

It hadn't always been this way. There was a time when I had actually enjoyed driving.

Take "George," my first car. Me and two friends took him on a wild ride to Edinburgh, to visit to the world famous Fringe Festival. What a ride that was.

And what a car! George was a little blue mini with dinky car wheels and a sexy red racing strip running down his side. He cost me 150 pounds, and never made it above 50 mph.

He was so small. To this day I don't know how my 6'3", 240 lb. mate Joc managed to squeeze himself in and out of the back.

But he had a big heart. Over the ten days of our trip he ran out of gas, nearly flipped over twice, and suffered a nasty gash in the side after a bunch of Scottish hoods decided to "give us a push" - straight into a center median.

By the time we got him home he was leaning to one side and his bonnet had developed a habit of popping up at high speeds. But he was still the coolest car I ever knew.

A year later my college friend Mark and I had the bright idea of renting a couple of Ford Escorts, so we could "go mental in Scotland."

We did. Especially me, when I smashed into a bridge and lost my 200 pound deposit; You'd think that two crashes in 18 months might have taught me to take more care, but it just got worse.

By the time I was 21, I had perfected the art of shaving while driving. This delicate operation required the most intense concentration - especially when performed at high speeds, as it usually was. It also involved a high degree of hand-knee coordination.

My left hand would stretch out the skin on my cheek, nice and tight, while the right would work the electric razor, round and round, in smooth circular motions, until my shave was complete.

My knees, of course, were used for steering.

In 1989, I was a shiny-suit wearing shelf salesman, based in London, England. My territory was bounded by Watford in the north, Ealing in the east, Chatham in the south, and Oxford in the west.

I was doing a lot of driving.

In fact, I was officially married to my car. In a ceremony attended by my best friends and a member of my family, I walked into the lot of the Vauxhall garage on Staines Road, Heathrow and picked out a beautiful white Vauxhall Astra, from a long line of white Vauxhall Astras.

"She's a beut," remarked my friend Mark.

"Yes, it's lovely," agreed my Mum, who was still beaming at the prospect of her son getting his first, "proper" job, and his first "decent" car.

After signing all the papers the creepy looking bloke from the garage gave me a wink and said the words I had longed to hear: "She's all yours."

But, just like all my other cars, the honeymoon was soon over. It took only a week for her looks to start to fade. A coming together with a red Rover at the A4 roundabout near Ealing Common gave her a nasty dent in the side.

Inside, the steady build-up of moldy toast, petrol receipts and scrunched up sweet wrappers soon confirmed she had lost all pride in her appearance. Not surprisingly, our relationship started to suffer. We spent so much time together that bit by bit, all those strange little habits started to grate on my nerves.

Why did the left indicator always make that extra little blip after I'd switched it off? Why would the radio pre-sets never stay put? And why did she always make it impossible for me to find her high beams, when I was in the mood?

Of course, like all relationship breakdowns, it was as much my fault as hers.

I had a nasty habit of banging the steering wheel in heavy traffic. I didn't once check her tires. And after two years of this rough treatment, there was no way I was venturing under her hood.

But it didn't matter. Two years of standing in traffic and tearing up the highways had taken their toll on both of us. I became moody, frustrated and fed up. I was ready for a divorce.

The separation came in dramatic style. It happened as I was driving back from a skiing trip to Scotland (yes, they have skiing in Scotland). I was bombing down the M6 near Birmingham at 2am when, out of nowhere, an enormous hare appeared at my front bumper.

In those times of life where you wish you had a slow motion button to give you time to think, I was left fumbling for the remote. The less intelligent side of my brain (I think it's called the "instinct") kicked in, and I did something extremely stupid: I turned the wheel.

Now, spinning around at 80 Mph is not a fun experience. Like the wonky waltzer at the fair, there's only so much spinning and bouncing you can take before the "whooping" stops and the puking begins.

When I finally straightened up I was going 70 mph down the hard shoulder - backwards.

As I headed up the embankment I decided to flip the wheel, to turn the car around. And off we went again: round and round until we started skidding sideways, ever so gracefully, straight into the crash barrier, and it was over.

As I surveyed the damage I thought back to the times we had spent together.

Those endless hours hunkered down on the M25, not moving; just staring out the window at the workman drinking their tea, and dreaming of a life without cones.

The summer days spent tearing up the A4 to Oxford, arriving in Reading and realizing it's actually the A40 that goes to Oxford, and wondering what my boss would say about another lost sale.

It occurred to me, then, that these were not happy memories at all. As I nursed my shattered chassis up the ramp to the service station, I realized that I had been entombed in this car, enslaved by my commute, and thoroughly pissed off by the whole experience.

As we crawled into the parking spot next to McDonalds, I knew it was time to say goodbye. I kicked her tires, and walked away.

A week later I was back home in Leeds - car-less again.

But it wasn't long before I was back on the road. I signed up for some nurse training in nearby Halifax. That meant a 25 mile commute and another set of wheels. This time, for some reason, and I'll never know why, I picked out a deep blue Skoda.

Now, in Europe, the Skoda is the Smart Car of Canada, the Newfy of the road, the George Bush of automobile intelligence: it's a joke. [Aside: "Skoda" is also Czech for "What a pity" - Ed.]

With its Yugoslavian engineering and clumsy box like contours, you almost had to crank the thing up to get it started. At winter I would warm the engine with an overnight blanket - sometimes forgetting to take it off in the morning until I reached the second set of lights and noticed the warm smell of burning fabric pouring out of the vents.

It broke down about once a fortnight. On one occasion, I had the unlikely experience of getting the same road assistance guy two days running: he was not amused.

The Skoda eventually blew a head gasket on the way to the second-hand car dealership. I almost had to pay them to let me leave it there.

Worse than the stigma of being a "Skoda guy" for three years was the shear mind-numbing monotony of my latest commute.

The trip to Halifax Infirmary took me only half an hour on a good day, but even at this, I was stuck with how frustratingly familiar it all became.

Unlike London, my new commute was always the same. I felt like Bill Murray in the movie, Groundhog Day. It got so I would actually switch off on the drive in, and find myself waking up in the third parking spot on the left, shaking my head and feeling thoroughly depressed about the prospect of another new day.

One tactic I developed for varying my commute was quite extreme: I moved house. I had three addresses in three years, but even with that, things still stayed the same.

I began to feel trapped. Shut inside my little commuter shell, I grew lonely, so I started to reach out to my fellow drivers, engaging them in any way I could.

When I came upon a lane hog, I approached enthusiastically, flashing my lights and blaring my horn. If someone cut in I would pull up alongside, and give them a "wave".

Anyone else who attempted to do anything remotely annoying, such as indicating too long, driving too slow, or looking too old, was greeted with any number of hand gestures, picked at random from the International Handbook of Highway Hand Gestures.

I remember one trip giving a two fingered salute to a high beam flasher who was glued to my rear end. As he cruised past I started wobbling my arms and pulling faces, for no other reason than to piss him off.

It worked. In fact, he was so pissed off he spent the next five miles trying to run me off the road. He cut in front and braked, swerved from side to side, and even faked a sideswipe that sent me careening onto the shoulder, fighting to keep control.

Of course, he wanted me to pull over and "have a nice chat," I would assume, but I opted to keep going and hope for the best.

Luckily for me, he scooted off at the next exit, still spitting out the window and shaking his fist. I swore then that I would never go through that again.

For a few years I succeeded. But that was before I landed in North America, when the term "commuter hell" took on a whole new meaning, and where a car park showdown gave me yet another reminder about this crazy screwed up way of life we call our "car culture."

Tune in next issue for more fender-bending adventures from the Accidental Activist.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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