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FIRST PERSON

Danger Crept Up in His Blind Spot

March 06, 1997|JOEL DEUTSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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 than 3 feet away.

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 2-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 faces beyond the front row. I couldn't, without assistance, read roll sheets, notes from the office, textbook passages or student papers.

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 difficult commute.

*

Why, you might reasonably ask, would someone with vision so impaired persist in driving? Romance. Practicality. Pride. Denial.

At 15, 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 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, "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.

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