The Universal Notebook: Driving me crazy

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There is a good chance I may never leave Maine again other than for a few quick forays over the border into New Hampshire to see family. If I find I need anything in Boston (which hasn’t happened in years), I’ll take the train.

Driving drives me crazy. I used to love to drive. Now, whether it’s my age and disposition or the quantity and quality of other motorists, I feel as though I’m taking my life in my hands every time I get behind the wheel. Of course, I am, but it never bothered me before.

Over Father’s Day weekend we took a trip to the New Haven, Connecticut, area for a wedding party. I used to drive to New York City several times a year, sometimes down and back in a single day, but, owing to illness in 2019 and pandemic in 2020, I hadn’t been out of state in two years.

In those two years, I got old, traffic got ridiculous and drivers went berserk.

The five hours down on Saturday and five hours back on Sunday was like running the Indianapolis 500 on the interstate with a bunch of amateurs. For one thing, no one seems to know how to merge anymore. Drivers either came flying off the on-ramps oblivious to the flow of traffic or came crawling out slowly and hesitantly causing breaking, swerving, and swearing.

Then there were the “Fast & Furious” fans weaving from lane to lane, sometimes signalling their lane changes, most of the time just blowing by sounding like vacuum cleaners, cutting in wherever they thought they saw an opening.

What I learned almost as soon as I left Maine is that I had lost my nerve. I used to weave through traffic at 80 mph with the best (or worst) of them. Now I don’t feel comfortable exceeding the speed limit or changing lanes at all. 

I am now a menace to motoring. I have become one of those old men rolling along at 65 (mph, not years) causing truckers in big semis, cowboys in big Hemis, hipsters in Audis, soccer moms in mammoth SUVs, and young bucks in little Japanese drift cars to come racing up behind me only to ride my bumper until they see an opening to pass.

I was most comfortable on the highway when construction slowed traffic to a crawl. If cars had top speeds of 40, I’d be a lot happier and we’d all be a lot safer.

The traffic and the drivers got worse the farther south we went and got better the closer we got to home. But even driving around Portland these days is fraught with peril.

It’s a good thing I know my way around the city (in the 1970s I drove a taxi in Portland). The other day I had to fashion an elaborate route to get into and out of the city while avoiding road projects on Marginal Way, Washington Avenue, Ocean Avenue, and Baxter Boulevard. Portland has become one big detour.

So as the vaccines kick in, the virus recedes, the economy rebounds, and Americans take to the road to spend their stimulus checks and exorcize their self-quarantine ya-yas, I’m thinking about selling my car and becoming a hermit. Or maybe just a pedestrian.

I’d become a passenger, but the only thing that makes me more nervous than my own driving is everybody else’s.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.