Huddled Masses: Hazardous Material
Interstate 40 is big, bad, and nationwide. Its two terminal
points are Barstow, California and Wilmington, NC, and in between it
runs like a modern-day Route 66 through eight states: mountains,
plains, deserts, filthy cities. But there are no songs written
about Interstate 40, perhaps because its sedative, boring run is only
interrupted by severe sections around major cities where everyone
barrels down the on-ramps and immediately starts a panicked freakout
like light-blinded cockroaches. Everyone wants into that left
lane. Everyone wants to get the hell away from the city.
Everyone wants to move.
In North Carolina it is not unusual to see a massive group of cars,
riding one hundred strong like some suburban Hell’s Angel pack, racing
across four lanes in unison, bumper to bumper and maintaining 85 miles
per hour while the State Troopers merely watch and wait for someone to
disrupt the flow. It’s pure anarchy out there, even in the
midday. The idea is that rush hour could start at any moment of
the day and come without warning like the Rapture and oh, Jesus, we
shall have our hearts and minds ready.
This is a situation where even professionals can be intimidated into
acting like mindless creatures plugged into big machines beyond their
control. The professional drivers, the deliverymen, movers,
truckers: they rise like elephants stuck in a herd of galloping
antelope, and their minds can trigger into thinking, yes, I, too, am an
antelope. I will run. And the destruction begins.
Professional driving is subject to the laws of averages just like
anything else. The longer you stay on the road, the more likely
you are to see on a regular basis the kinds of things that disturb the
normal Sunday drivers. A prison guard dropping a
litter-retrieving inmate worker who was veering a little to close to
the woods. A loose log flying off a truck into a
windshield. Near-misses. Close calls. All manner of
carnage, both mechanical and visceral: deer, dogs, Nissans,
Chevys. Running the highways for cash amplifies your exposure to
Death. You start to expect it. White sheets with little
spots of red soaking through. Flashlights bobbing above the dark
median search for a body part that was thrown clear of the
wreckage. Death as a working condition. Death as the
coworker no one likes.
It adds up. Not just the casual way gore keeps budging into your
life, but also the speed, the fumes, the long miles, the sharp
curves. Fatigue stinks up the cab. Vibrations remain in
your hands even after you let go of the wheel. Nerves wear down
like steel on a grindstone. Watch the sparks fly.
But mostly it’s the people. These obnoxious, deranged, uneducated
retards of the road. They pinch and scratch, claw for
position. They make swift lane changes and pull stunts that, if
they were watching from a different vantage point, say, from up in a
ten-foot cab, they’d never do.
How am I driving?
Terrible. Muck-minded bagel in one hand cell in the other driving with my knees talk radio focused shithead.
If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.
It’s true. But a trucker can tell, sometimes. You’re back
there, you’re riding the bumper of a twenty-ton mobile structure you
can’t see around. Or you’re one lane over, maneuvering for
position, yanking your wheel and pulling in front of a diesel-powered
monster incapable of making a quick stop.
On a long enough timeline, a professional driver will face a moment in
his career where it just seems right, moral, socially acceptable, and
justifiable to just let something happen. Let physics take over
and follow this series of events to its natural conclusion. The
universe wants it to happen. The only thing preventing this is
the driver’s own sense of pride, but when pride squares off against
instinct and rage…it’s always the underdog.
Just outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, late December. Driver
Jones Humphrey is westbound, maintaining a speed of seventy miles per
hour in a silver tanker truck when someone pulls out in front of him
with a proximity that is close even by professional standards.
Facing an inevitable crash, Humphrey has a few options; he’s been
trained to deal with this situation in a relatively safe manner.
He could probably contain the carnage. Ultimately, though, his
tanker ends up overturned and blocking three lanes of traffic, bleeding
gasoline through the punctured tank. Unleaded runs clear on the
A Hazmat team was immobilized. The traffic jam swelled, backed up
for at least ten miles. People were yelling from their windows at
smokers; cigarettes got stubbed out or lit up—stress relief and
protest. Hazmat does their job, sprinkling down some innocuous
powder. The truck gets towed off the interstate. Slowly the
mess is cleaned up and traffic starts moving again. But the
aftermath of that split-second decision held up hundreds of people for
the better part of the day and put the fear of a fiery Armageddon into
them. One spark and they were all doomed captives…explosions
would rock back down the interstate like dominoes.
Imminent danger like that tends to lead to investigations.
Humphrey was interviewed and the insinuations were made: perhaps he did
this on purpose. Maybe he’s disturbed. Maybe he’s latently
homicidal. Maybe he didn’t just get caught up in a situation beyond his control.
I think any driver knows the truth. Humphrey thought of every
jackass who’d come too close to his truck over the years, remembered,
split-second style, all the faces of others looking up into his cab:
disdain, resentment. They don’t even know how their capitalistic
world would be retarded without him, without all the drivers.
They don’t even know how close to getting flattened they come every
day, how much rage a driver holds inside his body, how it swells his
gallbladder and repaves his stomach. They’re all driving blind,
so, maybe, Humphrey thinks, they’ll see this as just another accident,
not a willful act of revenge. Maybe I can get away with it.
Maybe I can watch as they realize how dangerous this highway is, and
how I’m the only thing between them and a righteous inferno.
He’ll get off unpunished for the most part. Maybe he’ll get
fired, but trucking companies are always hiring. It’s almost
impossible to find enough people to drive all the tankers
nowadays. It’s test-pilot danger at shop clerk pay. No one
wants to do it. They’re even considering repealing a law that
says convicted arsonists can’t drive tankers. So Humphrey will
have another job if he wants it, and maybe, with this act, he’s
unloaded enough pressure so that his internal moral brakes are
functioning again, ready to clamp down hard and save us all.
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