When I was driving an 18-wheeler cross-country, I could almost always coax myself into some measure of enthusiasm upon being dispatched to New York City or Boston on the grounds that eventually I would also be dispatched out of them. After all, they are such wonderful places to leave.
Why is that? Well, if you put aside traffic jams of Cecil B. DeMille proportions, being flipped off constantly (I saw so many middle fingers I thought there was a proctologists’ convention in town), there are always the poorly marked road signs that will have your 13-foot, 6-inch-tall vehicle facing a bridge with only an 11-foot clearance, not to mention the many hairpin turns where you must carefully maneuver so as not to knock over a light pole whilst a dozen cars speed up to place themselves in the path of your truck and trailer, their drivers honking their horns and imploring you to hurry up and get out of their way even as they block your escape. For truck drivers, these are the cities where good attitudes and good driving records go to die.
“I don’t recall your name,” said the American writer Oliver Herford, “but your manners are familiar.” So it was with my trips to the northeast generally, where I encountered drivers who appeared to be running late for their next collision. I never knew their names, but their manners were unforgettable. Unhappily though, I’ve watched over the years as more and more of those awful driving habits have infiltrated other parts of the country.
Memphis May Be Worse
Last week, while driving my semi on the I-240 loop on the south side of Memphis, a lady in a sedan blasted past me as if my truck were sitting on blocks. She had to be doing over 90 mph, and when she noticed the three lanes in front of her were blocked by people traveling closer to the speed limit, she decided against using the brakes and instead swerved hard right to pass them in the far-right lane.
But she was going too fast and over-shot the mark. She compounded that error by overcorrecting, at which point she lost control completely, going into a high-speed spin. Across all the lanes she spun, like a NASCAR wreck, her tires smoking as she left skid marks all over the place while spinning first toward the concrete barriers on the far left side of the highway, and then sliding backwards to come to a complete stop directly in front of my 18-wheeler.
This is what we call a “hard brake event,” which necessitated me standing on the brakes while turning on the truck’s four-way flashers, all while trying to keep my own trailer from passing me up. Fortunately, my truck came to a stop before turning that lady into a hood ornament.
Have you ever experienced a situation in which your heart pounded so hard it produced spasms of incredible pain shooting down your back? That’s what I felt as the little speedster whose stupid arrogance had nearly killed her put her car in gear, turned around, and went speeding down the highway as if nothing had happened.
I Think They’re Using Roads as Population Control
If this kind of driving were an anomaly in Memphis and elsewhere, I would have shrugged it off, after a sufficient amount of profanity and impromptu genealogy, and pressed on. But it wasn’t an anomaly. Indeed, it’s the sort of maniacal behavior that has come to define Memphis traffic.
In fact, it reached the point a couple of weeks ago that I composed an article for the local newspaper here in Memphis. The editor said it was impossibly long, so I whittled it down by half and sent it back. After evidently taking the time to read it, the editor went silent and I haven’t heard a word since.
Was it my request that road crews stop persecuting us with a wilderness of orange cones to negotiate while they smooth out the rough patches of road or rough up the smooth patches that made the thing a little too risky? Or could it have been the sardonic suggestion that road crews instead construct reviewing stands alongside the local highways so people could relax and watch the daily running of the imbeciles?
Perhaps it was my speculation that the young man weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, missing death or the wheelchair by a whisker, might have been running late for a Black Lives Matter meeting, though there is scant evidence that any lives matter in this the second-most violent city in America.
Now, for the 10 Rules
At any rate, after careful observation, I put together ten rules of Memphis driving, to wit:
- Brakes are a sign of weakness. Don’t even consider using them until it’s too late.
- All turns should be made from the opposite side of the road. If you know your destination is on the right, stay left until you get there, then have at it.
- Turn lanes are for the front of your vehicle only. Hang your rear into oncoming traffic. I don’t know why. It’s just what we do, and we’ve apparently been doing it since Pharaoh held Charlton Heston and the children of Israel captive.
- Avoid looking in the direction you are driving. Do some sight-seeing instead.
- Courtesy is a sign of weakness.
- If yours is the first vehicle in the herd, drive fast enough to cut off and delay the driver who is waiting to turn onto the road. If you are last in line, slow down so the pack behind you can catch up and keep blocking him.
- Remember, during hours of darkness at least one vehicle in every quarter-mile must have its headlights and tail lights off in honor of the Patron Saint of Memphis Drivers, Helen Keller.
- When possible, bury your foot in the floorboard and double the posted speed limit.
- What blinkers?
- If unsure, just drive like a cop.
It’s tempting, at this point, to wax philosophical about what the rampant spread of reptilian behavior behind the wheel portends for the future of civil society. There are, after all, a great many societal barometers, most of which are pointing in the wrong direction. One could scan the local news here, or watch people run each other off the road with wild abandon, and conclude that the inmates are running the asylum. They will get no argument from me.
On the other hand, I’m reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s words: “Manners are especially the need of the plain. The pretty can get away with anything.” In that case, I can safely give you my word that Memphis is truly where the beautiful people are. How do I know? It’s where I met my wife.