|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.
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 clearly from more than a few feet away, and that under
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.
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
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.
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 in 1966, 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
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 within the metropolitan area. "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.
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
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
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
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.
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 from the school.
seņora" 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.
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 in 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.
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 the Golden Gate Park
Panhandle, where the Grateful Dead played for nothing from flatbed
trucks amidst the aromatic eucalyptus trees, 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 wheel, 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.
seņora. Lo siento mucho.
in the Los Angeles Times,
Life & Style Section, Thursday, March 6, 1997
Copyright 1997, 2001 Joel M. Deutsch.
All rights reserved
Republication or distribution in any medium prohibited without express,
written consent of the author