Left foot out the driver’s side window

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We couldn’t believe it. My wife and I were driving on the freeway, with the kids in the minivan, headed to a large toy store to buy expensive plastic play equipment for the yard, when we saw a small car passing us in the lane to our right. The young woman driving had her left foot hanging out the driver’s side window. In order to physically achieve this, her seat was reclined quite far back, and she could juuust barely see over her steering wheel. She was wearing shades and looked very relaxed. And she was wearing flip-flops, of course, or at least she was on her left foot.

Americans have been doing questionable things in cars since cars have been around, but it seems like the frequency of strange, stupid and truly dangerous behavior has been increasing. It’s almost as if it’s now a demonstration sport in the 2008 Bejing Olympics, and the merely foolish are joining the regular nutjobs and raging maniacs in training, all furiously dedicating themselves to win gold. I’m referring to behavior such as: talking on cell phones, texting on cell phones, applying make-up, reading the newspaper, eating items that require two hands, fishing below the dash for CDs, watching DVDs, or ghost riding the whip (I’m not going to tell you – just YouTube it). Anything but focusing on the task at hand.

Historically, I’m as guilty of it as anybody. I bring stacks of CDs into the car. When I had a cell phone I would drive and talk at the same time. In high school, we jammed 11 people into a mid-sized sedan just to see if it could be done and drove around (nobody in the trunk, that would be cheating), or the time several of us rode in the back of a friend’s cargo van, taking large bumps at high speed to create a game of human pinball in the back. I’ve reformed a bit since then, and think only of beautifully low insurance rates as I keep the hands at ten and two, alert and ready for anything. Except to swap CDs, of course.

But that driver’s side flip flop made me realize that all this behavior might represent something more than people just being dumb. True, she could have been crazy, or the worst kind of person you can encounter on the road, a person with nothing left to lose (see vehicles with major body damage). But she’s really just a symptom; an indicator of things to come. If I had had a camera, I would have snapped a photo because this woman was the poster child for the Americans who have no time to themselves. Cars are no more only A to B transportation for these folks – they are offices, they are theaters, they are restaurants. Americans are staking out driving time to do the things in their lives that are getting pushed aside.

Not every weird event you see out there is an indication of some societal shift, but in this case, I think there’s something going on. After getting over my initial thought of “this is one of the truly bad ideas anyone in a car has ever come up with,” I started to identify with her. Believe it or not, I was feeling her low-slung, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, let it all hang out vibe. Flip-flop girl wasn’t driving to the beach. She doesn’t have the time. Instead, her car WAS the beach.

Think about this scenario – you’re doing too much, you’re tired, maybe work didn’t go all that well this week. The kids are screaming when you get home, home improvements and family obligations obliterate the weekend, and you still have that volunteer thing you said you’d do. To someone like that, the car is an oasis! Comfy seats, air conditioning, music at the ready, cup holder standing by. All that and they don’t have to talk to anybody. It’s a rolling metal living room, and it’s equipped so you can kick back and chill.

Time to ourselves is slipping through our fingers in this country these days. Americans get less vacation time than the citizens of any other industrialized country, and there are recent polls showing that we’re taking less and less of that vacation. Even when we are off work, we’re checking in, checking voice messages, checking email. We are always working, meeting, thinking, hosting, visiting, doing, improving, and just trying to keep up with one another.

But you can’t always be active. You need time for you. It’s biologically required and mandated by several unions. Stress shortens lives and we all know it, even the lives of those with Type A personalities who won’t admit it. So what happens when society squeezes the space for personal time? It spurts. It seems to have spurted into our cars. Instead of just driving, we relax, or talk, or eat, or read or engage in other questionable activities, all because of the pressure on our time. Not convinced? Rather than play it safe near the pedals, I just witnessed a woman stick her foot out a car window at 65 miles per hour. I don’t think that would occur to a person not under duress.

More and more, we’re seeing people with their feet out the window, or someone driving while eating a meatball sub or playing the trumpet, and for what? A better job? More money? Increased security? That might be it for some. Others are just trying to cobble together a living that keeps the roofs overhead and food within reach. People are going back to school, and volunteering for favorite causes, and turning passions into small businesses, and caring for young kids and aging parents. People have all of these obligations and go as hard as they can until… something spurts.

So, flip-flop girl, I know you’re working hard. I know there’s too much going on, and too much that seems like it has to be done. I share your desperate need for a beach vacation. But I do have one request. The next time you feel like sticking your foot out your car window, remember that the sight of your foot gliding over the highway raises my blood pressure through the car roof. I’m trying to relax too, trying to enjoy my little metal moving sanctuary, just like you. Please don’t obstruct my view with your foot – it’ll ruin my living room vibe. Let me stare out my window in peace.