Behind the Wheel

I don’t enjoy driving anymore.
Maybe I’ve just been doing it too long, but I can no longer tolerate the chaos and lawlessness. Rules are ignored without consequence. Law enforcement has gone missing.
The highways around me have become a huge demolition derby circuit. The roads are a Dodgem car track. Driving has become a high-risk chore.
Heavy machines with 3 litre motors, are driven by inconsiderate people with 50cc brains. It’s completely unacceptable.
Driving my car through rush hour traffic has become extremely dicey – especially when I’m shit-faced.

My son Cam will be 17 soon so he’s started studying the K53 learner’s license manual. Every couple of days, I let him practice driving my car. I’m very keen for him to get his license – after that, my chauffeuring days are over…and his will have just started.
Luckily, we’ve held onto his car booster seat from when he was a toddler. You see, it seems I’ve started shrinking in the last few years. Hopefully, before too long, Cam can drive while I sit in his old booster seat, point at things outside the window, and shit my pants. Behold Simba…the glorious circle of life.

Sometimes though, my phone seduces me into driving.
When I hit ‘shuffle’ on my music library, the right combination of songs makes me want to drive to Cape Town.
I hate to interrupt my little iDJ when he’s on a roll.
I can’t count the times I’ve had to drive around the block to let a song finish, before pulling into my driveway. I also do that thing where I park, and then sit there holding the key, unable to turn the car off until the end of the song.
When Steve Winwood sings, ‘…come and seeeee me…’, it’s physically impossible to kill the ignition before he says, ‘…I’m the same boy I used to be.’
And it would be rude.
It’s like being at the bedside of a dying relative on life support. You know it’s time to pull the plug…but you just can’t.

The first car I owned was a beige VW Beetle. At 600 bucks, it was way overpriced.
It was a real lemon – frequently and for reasons unknown, the car would suddenly fill up with smoke. While driving, I’d have to open all the windows to let the clouds billow out. Puttering along, I felt like I was in a Cheech and Chong sketch (light it up, let’s get Chinese eyes man).
I’ve never understood the affection for Beetles. People who think they’re cute have obviously never driven one. I had two and they were both rolling dog turds. Herbie? He can fuck off.
I couldn’t afford to fix the Beetle’s smoke problem, but I did manage to buy a killer tape deck and amplifier. This was the car I was driving in 1987, the year U2 released, ‘The Joshua Tree’.
The music system in the Beetle sounded way better than my twin-tape boombox or my shitty headphones at home. As a result, in the space of a year I probably put 100 000 kilometers on that car. Driving around at night, listening to ‘The Joshua Tree’, and inhaling more toxic fumes than Snoop Dogg.
Not since Ted Bundy had a Beetle clocked up more mileage crawling through the suburbs. My face lit by the dashboard’s red-orange glow, I matched Bono note for note. On ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’, I battered out Larry Mullen’s drum parts on my steering wheel, bruising my fingers at the machine gun blast after, ‘…running, scared in the valley below…

When I was younger, I enjoyed driving…especially with music playing.
Somehow, driving seems to enhance the power of music. Songs become soundtracks to clips of road trip movies I never starred in. Unrestrained solo singalongs become rehearsals for bands I’ll never join. Certain songs provide me with vivid snapshots of moments spent behind the wheel.
I understand why some of these snapshots are memorable – times of high emotion, fear, or excitement tend to linger. Others are random and unremarkable, and I don’t know why I’ve retained them.

   After high school, in early 1984 I worked briefly as a trainee computer operator for a large furniture chain. The job involved night shift work – a really bad idea for a nineteen-year-old. When my friends were gearing up for a night out, I’d be preparing to leave for work. It was grim – I lasted about 3 months before handing in my ticket.
The job was in Central Jo’burg.
Before I bought my first Beetle, I was using my father’s Ford Cortina station wagon to get around. Not the sexiest vehicle in the world but hey, beggars can’t be choosers and I was grateful for the use of it. Compared to the smoking fart machine I’d soon be driving, the Cortina was like Magnum’s Ferrari.
The Cortina had no music system, so I would drive around with an old battery powered, portable Blaupunkt cassette tape player wedged between the front seats, behind the gear stick. The size of a child’s shoebox, it was one of those tape machines with a row of buttons in front of the tape hatch, and a small speaker behind.
After my last shift at the computer place, I drove home from Jo’burg with the little tape player at full volume. Around Steeledale, I turned off Heidelberg road onto the fly-over at South Rand road.
Depeche Mode’s ‘Speak & Spell’ was in the tape player. As I took the off-ramp bend, the song ‘New Life’ played through the small speaker. With the majestic vistas of Steeledale whizzing by outside my window, it felt like perfect timing.
After months of missing out on various parties and piss-ups, a New Life was just what the doctor ordered. I drove, eager and optimistic into an unknown future. At nineteen, my floundering social life seemed much more important than a prospective career in I.T.
It’s a good job those fangled computer thingies didn’t take off.
I might have regretted that.

Sometime around 1989/90, my mate Craig and I went on a mini-break excursion up to Sabie in the (then) Eastern Transvaal. It was probably a public holiday long weekend, and we were keen to escape the Jo’burg grime for a few days.
Sabie was a friendly, sleepy town surrounded by natural beauty. It was an ideal spot for sight-seeing, trout fishing and weekend bikers. A quaint, river-side resort called Merry Pebbles was my go-to venue.
After work on a Friday afternoon, we packed Craig’s Mazda hatchback with a small tent and a disturbing amount of beers.
Hanging out with Craig was always a joy. His laid-back, optimistic demeanour was the perfect antidote to my default low level angst. In those days, Craig was so easy-going, my mate Paul and I used to refer to him as, ‘He Who Don’t Give a Fuck’. Together, we laughed easily and frequently.
I envied his attitude. After watching cricket one day at The Wanderers, we returned to his car to find the window smashed and the tape deck gouged out of his dashboard.
I was spitting venom. Craig shrugged and said, “Oh Fuck.” By the time we got home, he’d forgotten about it. Talk about, ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’.
I would’ve let the anger corrode my soul for about six months.

The trout in Sabie rivers had nothing to fear. Our plan was to roll through the bendy roads in and around Sabie and maintain a solid beer buzz for the whole weekend. It’s common knowledge that God’s Window and The Mac Mac Falls look even better through beer goggles.
We approached Sabie from Lydenburg, climbing over the Long Tom Pass. It was full dark as we chugged our way to the top of the pass, and the weather was closing in.
The descent into Sabie is harrowing even in good conditions. The road snakes downwards through a forest tunnel, occasionally opening to reveal a huge valley on one side. It’s wise to pay attention and keep your foot over the brake.
Now, the world outside the car was as dark as the inside of a coffin. Rain had started falling and heavy fog had reduced visibility to a few meters. The conditions had slowed us to a crawl.
The car’s headlight beam probed the slippery road ahead like a blind man’s white cane.
As Craig steered the car slowly down the pass, tree branches blew in the wind, seeming to wave us backwards. Fog surrounded the car, peering through the windows like a gang of thieves.
Like a ride through a haunted house at the fair, each sharp corner was terrifying.
The Mazda had a kick-ass Grundig tape deck and a decent set of speakers. Depeche Mode’s live album ‘101’, had been playing on a constant loop.
Craig leaned forward in the driver’s seat, both hands on the steering wheel in a white-knuckled death grip. His eyes were locked on the small patch of tar visible below the headlight beams.
At high volume, the stealthy, foreboding beat of, ‘Things You Said’ started playing…

(…I heard it from my friends about the things you said…I heard it from my friends about the things you said…)

I sat in the passenger seat, my right hand on the hand brake lever, ready to yank it up.

(…how can a view become so twisted…how can a view become so twisted…)

Under the song, the eerie screaming of the crowd in the Pasadena Rose Bowl betrayed our fragile calm.

(…I never felt so disappointed, never felt so disappointed…)

In the dashboard glow, our faces were undertaker pale.
I cracked us both fresh beers and then braced for impact.
Sinister and accusing, Martin Gore ushered us down the pass.
We held our breaths and dropped through the clouds like a Boeing coming in to land.

Back in Jo’burg, The Mazda continued to deliver us from evil.
Most weekend nights, I’d sleep in the car, parked on the side of a road, outside (Craig’s girlfriend) Anne’s flat, somewhere in Greenside.
According to Craig, when I was unconscious drunk, I was a dead weight and he couldn’t get me off the back seat of the car. If memory serves, at that time, I was quite chunky, so I don’t doubt him.
The parking spot was near a bakery, in front of a row of shops.
On Sunday mornings, I’d wake up to the sound of cars parking around me.
Waking up in the back of a car isn’t pleasant under any conditions. Your knees ache from being bent for too long, the seat’s way too hard, and the top of your head hurts from being pressed up against that fucking door handle.
When you combine this with a wicked hangover and dehydration, the level of discomfort is off the charts.
There must’ve been a church nearby, because on Sunday mornings, there would be a queue of smartly dressed people outside the bakery, waiting to buy milk and fresh rolls on their way to, or from the early show.
I’d wake up and stare at dust particles floating in the sun between my bleary eyeballs and the stained lining on the dome of the car. I’d listen to the sounds of the neighbourhood around me.
Cars hooting, kids shouting, dogs barking. I’d also hear the church folk chatting about gym, the weather, and other wholesome topics.
A combination of things would get me moving. First, I’d do the panicked patting of all my pockets until I’d eventually find my (now empty) wallet. Then, relieved, I’d locate my crumpled box of smokes and fire up a Chesterfield (the first of my recommended daily allowance). I’d also be desperate for some Disprins, and a pee.
For these two things, on my way into Anne’s flat, I’d have to walk past the good people of the congregation outside the bakery.
There’s a scene near the end of the original Halloween movie where Jamie Lee Curtis thinks she’s killed Michael Myers. But as we see her, sitting in a doorway weeping, we see him in the background, suddenly sit up off the floor behind her.
Well, when I’d sit up in the backseat of the Mazda, it would look something like that – and to the bakery congregation, it was probably just as scary. I could imagine young choir members clinging to their parents’ legs and asking, “Mommy? Is that the boogeyman?”
Birds nest hair, bloodshot eyes and crumpled clothes, I’d emerge from the car in a cloud of Chesterfield smoke and beer farts. Reeking like a damp bar towel, my mouth would taste like the inside of an old wheelie bin.
Without sunglasses to hide behind, the walk of shame past the congregation would be agonizing. They’d look at me in silence, the same way a line of jurors regards the accused. I half expected one of them to step forward and say, “On the count of possession of malignant halitosis, we find the defendant guilty as charged. Bailiff…take him down.”

Immune to hangovers, Craig would open the door of the flat with a smile and a cheerful, “Jim!”
Now, my polluted brain would go into facial gesture recognition mode.
If his smile was too big, bordering on laughter, then I knew he was recalling some stupid, but harmless shit I’d done the night before. If his smile was too small, then chances were, I’d offended someone.
Luckily, that someone was never Craig himself – he rarely took offence to anything.
The play-by-play review of the previous evening was always excruciating.
For the next half hour, Craig would start every sentence with those four chilling words, “But don’t you remember…?”
I’d chew Disprins (the first of my recommended daily allowance), and squirm.
“No Craig, I don’t remember.”
Turns out the bakery congregation were pretty decent folk. After about 6 months of this, we were on nodding terms and their kids would run up and give me coins.

The Mazda was a legend. It was way better than Michael Knight’s Trans Am.
Not even The Hoff could collapse into his car and say, “KITT, take us home. We’re all pissed again.”

My only photo of the trusty Mazda, after a long haul to Cape Town. Me, Cedric and Craig drink to her health.

3 thoughts on “Behind the Wheel

  1. Nice one Jim. Waking up in a car on the street in Greenside! Classic!! Of course, I to have woken up with a hangover in the company of Craig T. When I visited him and Anne many moons ago in Ireland. Christ, he is cheerful in the morning, isn’t he!


      1. He was first-rate. I always like him and often envied him. I remember he one got up on stage and played the drums in front of an adoring crowd. Man, I would have done almost anything to have changed places with him. And then of course there was Leslie Stephenson…


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