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On Larry Mantle and the hell of other drivers

INSIDE/OUT

I’ve been doing a lot of driving lately, a sad state of affairs given

that I positively hate to drive.

Yes, I’m aware that driving is part of the American way of life.

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And sure, I’d love my slice of the car commercial pie: tearing down

that open road with the wind sweeping through my hair, grinning like

a maniac as I take in all the gorgeous sights that line the nation’s

highways. But let’s face it, this is Southern California. There is no

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open road. The only wind I feel is the exhaust of the Ryder truck

five inches from my driver’s-side window. The only sights I see are

the red tail lights of the car in front of me.

But I’m doing a lot of driving all the same, and I have to admit

it’s been a bit of a drag. It’s been especially tedious given that my

car stereo receives only two stations: one, public radio; the other,

an “alternative music” station.

I used to really enjoy alternative music, but now that the station

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I listen to is one of the most popular in the FM market, the music

can hardly be called alternative anymore. Now that I’m getting big

earfuls of it every morning and evening, I can’t help but notice that

every song sounds exactly like the song before it, the lyrics all

variations on the same theme. Alienated teen meets another alienated

teen, whines about his or her parents, then runs off and beats

something into unconsciousness with a blunt instrument, usually a

small hammer.

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It saddens me that public radio is hardly better. If alternative

radio is all about cheap thrills and misguided aggression, public

radio is the antithesis. No thrills at all, but a tepid, trance-like

placidity, set to gloomy oboes and violins. I swear an announcer

dozed off for 10 minutes one morning while reporting on erosion in

the Mississippi Delta.

These past couple of weeks have been particularly irksome, as the

public station I get was in the screechy throes of one of its regular

fund-raising drives. This is the only time the announcers get excited

about anything. It seems public radio spends half its air time

begging you for cash and the other half boring you to tears. Every

day for 10 weekdays, my tuner alternated between Larry Mantle

shouting at the top of his lungs that people like me are thieves for

not paying for public radio, and some alienated teen beating

something into unconsciousness.

“There’s no excuse! You’ve been listening and now you have to pay!

Call now! Five! Five! Six! Nine!”

Beep.

“My mamma’s on smack and my daddy’s in the slammah! Wait a minute,

babe, while I go an’ get my hammah!”

Beep.

Accelerating/downshifting my way to work, stealing public radio,

I’ve got a lot of time to think about things. I think about all the

work that awaits me at the office. I make desperate mental notes to

myself to buy some books-on-tape. And to pass the time, I think up

names for all the bad drivers I encounter in my commute.

If I had the time, I could do this all day. The numbers of bad

drivers in Southern California are legion, and trying to categorize

them all would be like trying to name every grain of rice in a

Benihana.

One particularly prolific group are the Granny Bombs. These are

the elderly drivers cruising along in that dangerous state between

when they are no longer able to properly operate a motor vehicle and

when their licenses are taken away. I call them the Granny Bombs

because, well, they can go off at any moment. You just never know

when.

You could be driving past them and suddenly they’ll turn left or

right in front of you. You could be driving next them and suddenly

they’ll turn left or right into you. You could be cruising behind

them in the slow land and suddenly they’ll come to a complete stop,

get out and ask you for directions.

I consider the Granny Bombs among the least offensive bad drivers

I encounter for a couple of reasons. One is they’re easy to avoid -

you just have to give them a wide berth. And the other is that I

suspect if I’m lucky enough to live so long, I’ll probably drive just

as badly.

Next up on an ascending scale of badness are the Back-seat

Drivers, so-called because they tailgate you so closely they might as

well be in your back seat. Actually, I kind of wish they were in my

back seat, because then I could just reach around and slap them.

But maybe I’m being insensitive. It’s possible the Back-seat

Drivers simply didn’t receive enough love and attention as children,

and now cruise the nation’s roads in search of a little human

contact. It tugs at the heartstrings, really.

Then there are the Rescue Rangers. These are the brave souls you

often see suddenly plunge across three or four lanes of traffic and

the dirt shoulder in order to catch the offramp they almost missed. I

call them the Rescue Rangers because the only reason I can think of

for such risky behavior is that they’re trying to get to a burning

house with a trapped baby inside. Surely, no one would put their

lives in such peril for anything less serious.

Since I see this stunt pulled almost every day but rarely read

about burning houses with trapped babies inside, I have to assume the

Rescue Rangers answer a lot of false alarms.

I have far less admiration for the Thousand-year Wonders. These

are the nut jobs who, the moment I turn my left turning signal on,

take that as their cue to immediately pass me on my left. I flash my

right turn signal, and suddenly they’re swinging around to my right.

I’ve dubbed these idiots the Thousand-Year Wonders because if I live

to be 1,000 I still won’t understand them.

Of course, it’s highly doubtful anyone would have to worry about

the Thousand-Year Wonders a millennium from now. I’m convinced this

kind of behavior is nature’s way of removing the truly stupid from

the gene pool.

But by far the worst drivers I encounter are the Apollo

Astronauts. You’ve seen them. These are geniuses who suddenly fly

past you at 100 mph, threading their way through traffic without so

much as tapping their brakes. They scream around semis, narrowly miss

school buses by inches, weave in and out of carpool lanes as if those

two sets of double-yellow lines were nonexistent. Indeed, the Apollo

Astronauts seem to obey one rule and one rule only: Never brake for

anything.

And I call them the Apollo Astronauts because, as in the famous

moon missions, the slightest miscalculation could be disastrous. Just

one unforeseen circumstance - a car changing lanes unexpectedly, a

pothole, a blowout - and these yahoos will go spinning off into outer

space.

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that hell is other people. Our worst

fates are realized through our interactions with others. But I’m

convinced that if Sartre were alive today, he would conclude,

instead, that hell is other drivers.

* DAVID SILVA is an editor with Times Community News. He can be

reached at (909) 484-7019, or by e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com.


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