Runaway rubbernecking

I ran away from home when I was 10.

(I should probably mention at this point that I was, and am, the middle child.)

It was a Saturday afternoon in late 1988, one of those days where my parents and sisters seemed connected in a way I couldn’t fathom, or didn’t want to, like they were a hermetically-sealed foursome and I was the fifth wheel. Imagine Ace of Base with a cowbell player. That was how odd-man-out I felt.

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2 of them were white supremacists. Can you guess???

2 of them were white supremacists. Can you guess???

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Last week there was a traffic jam on my morning commute to work. Slow traffic is normal. Bumper to bumper for a few miles is normal. All jammed up with no movement for a few minutes? That was unusual.

In his short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Borges wrote of another world where the absence of anything led to its ubiquity. Traffic jams have always fascinated me for this reason. Often they make no sense; they seem impossible. Why is there a jam? If there’s an accident blocking the road, or it’s raining so heavily no one is moving, that makes sense. But usually when I’m in a traffic jam I’m trying to picture who’s at the front of it, and why we’re all stuck behind them. It’s not like roads commonly block up for 5-10 miles at a time. Someone is at the head of the line of traffic. Why aren’t they moving? Did they have a heart attack right where the lanes merge? Did a meteor land in front of them? Are they just a dick? Are they Michael Douglas from “Falling Down,” and they’ve snapped and left the rat race mid-stream?

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The day I ran away from was a beautiful fall day. Maybe it was late summer, and I was still 9.

My parents and my sisters were laughing and joking and seemed to fit like they were designed to. Maybe they were. It’s funny now: one of the saddest things to me about my family’s disintegration is I can’t remember the last time the 5 of us were together. When I was young, I could be possessive about how different I was from the rest of them. We’d walk from a parking lot to a restaurant—either a place called Family Ties, which was as dimly lit as the bar in Godfather II where Frankie Pantangeles gets shot, or Golden Boys, a brightly-lit ostensibly Greek restaurant, although all I remember ordering were cheeseburgers—and I’d make sure I lagged a few feet behind. My family was they. Them. Other. I was not. I was me. The Other’s other. This seemed right, somehow. This fit.

The day I ran away I decided it was the only way they would ever really know how important I was. My presence would never have the gravity of my absence.

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When the traffic jam thinned I was at the top of a hill. Confirming my suspicion, I could see clear road about a half-mile up ahead. We weren’t an endless snake of gridlock. There was an end to it. Why had we been stuck so long?

In a couple minutes, the answer was clear. On the other side of the median, a car had crashed into a tree. Traffic on both sides was at a crawl because people were slowing down to look at the accident scene.

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I walked out of my house that warm sunny day in ’88 with a pretty simple plan: I’d start walking and not stop until:

A)   My family came after me like a pack of dogs, and when they found me they threw their arms around me and admitted they’d taken me for granted and never would again, and life from then on would be as it should be…i.e. with me at its center, or

B)   I would keep moving until I found myself somewhere new, somewhere I’d never been before, and I’d start my new life there.

I hadn’t read “The Outsiders” yet, but I think I’d tapped into the collective conscious and figured I’d find a place of my own like Ponyboy and Johnny did when they ran away after. It seemed perfectly reasonable. I wasn’t asking for much. Just to be the center of the universe.

One of these things in not like the...oh. It is, isn't it?

One of these things in not like the…oh. It is, isn’t it?

I walked around my neighborhood for a couple hours, a track burg of 3-bedroom/2.5 bathroom tautology with names like “Thrushwood Lane,” “Audley End,” and my street, “Finchingfield Lane.” It didn’t take long to realize suburban Rochester was not somewhere I was likely to stumble onto a prepubescent wonderland of adultless sustainable adventuring. After what I decided was a proper period of time for my family to mourn my absence, I headed home.

When I arrived home, sweaty, tired, and morally affirmed in my self-centeredness, I trudged upstairs, wondering which of my family members would be the first to knock me over with a hug. My father? My mother? Older sister? Younger?

You know how it goes. Whenever you expect A, B, C, or D, the answer is E.

Nobody knew I’d been gone.

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At first, the realization that the traffic jam had all been about people rubbernecking really got my goat.

(Is that a pre-printing press, pre-Industrial Revolution expression? Before people knew what camels were, and that one straw could break their backs, was the barometer for pushing someone too far goat-related? What does it mean to get one’s goat? To steal it? To get it drunk? To “get it on,” as in Biblically?)

At my job I park in a garage. It is a very post-Industrial Revolution garage, in terms of the relation of time and space. If you arrive anytime up to 8:29, you can get an optimum spot. If you arrive at 8:30 on the dot, you’ll do OK—not great, but OK. If you arrive at 8:31 or later, you’re screwed. You end up circling up this ziggurat of steel and coffee-drinkers for miles and miles. It’s like the Tower of Babel, if cars could talk. You’ll need a team of Sherpas to get you back down to the floor level after you park.

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I was all worked up about getting to the garage before 8:30. What was the point of people gawking at an accident, I wondered? Are we all, like Arsene Wenger before us, voyeurs? Are we soaking in the spectre of death or serious harm, warming ourselves with the sight that it isn’t us who’s been scythed, but another? The Other?

The universe unfolds as it should. There is wisdom in that traffic jam. There is love. There is a lesson. Be grateful to share this world with the person in the accident, the people slowing as they pass, the EMTs on their way from their morning cup of Dunkin’ coffee, some who are happily married, some who are not, some who philander, some who suffer in secret.

There is another world, a crueler world, where we all speed by car wrecks. A world where nobody cares that you’re gone.

This world is better.

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