A near miss on the New Jersey Turnpike

April 12, 2010 at 8:18 AM 7 comments

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Every so often I go into a grand funk. Why now when I am working again and not two months ago when I expected to stay unemployed indefinitely? I can only say, with no small amount of embarrassment, that I can dive down into a well of sadness so wide that I take pleasure in nothing. Not in friends, not in family, not in my personal ambitions. All my usual distractions sit up on a high shelf like cookies in a tin meant for a celebration that never arrives.

I was in this slough of despond for the whole of Passover. The holiday dragged on for a thousand and one nights this year, and when it was over, I was too tired to make the hundred-mile trip from my parents’ home in southern New Jersey up to Boringsville, NY. I asked my sister Pesha to drive. She was fine with that as long as I started the car for her. This 2007 Honda Accord of mine makes a buzzy electrical noise before the engine turns over and the sound always freaks her out a little. No biggie. I started the car and let her take over so that I could be free to feel bad in the passenger seat.

We stopped off for gas at the Citgo on Route 73. Because complaining is great sport when I’m unhappy, I pointed out that the gas attendants here always try to rip me off if I pay in cash. They give me my change dollar by dollar so that I will get impatient and drive off. I was still crabbing when the attendant knocked on the driver’s side window and motioned for us to unlock the gas cap.

The gas cap lever is between the door and the driver’s seat. When you finally find it, you have to press it down. If you pull it up, the trunk opens up. I looked behind us. The attendant was feeding the gas nozzle into the car. Good. I could go back to feeling like crap.

“You could just pay with a credit card,” Pesha suggested.

“And lose the chance to see him rip me off?” I asked.

The attendant stood at the rear of the car and pulled out three singles in slo-mo.

“I told you,” I said. “He’s waiting for us to drive away.”

Pesha said, “Somebody took her nasty pill today.”

In a couple of minutes we were cruising down the center lane of the New Jersey Turnpike.

I told Pesha that I didn’t get it. She has her ups and downs and yet I have never seen her succumb to feelings of hopelessness.

“Give me some friends and a decent paying job and I’m pretty much okay,” she said.

“Why isn’t that enough for me?”

“You’re complicated,” she said.

I told my sister that every day I think about minimizing my religious observance. Observing the dietary laws keeps me from dining out with friends. Observing the Sabbath has prevented me from getting together with friends on Friday night. And the current prohibition against going to the theater or listening to music in public until Shavuot in May adds to my feeling of strangulation.

My sister said she knew how I felt. “I used to think I had religious observance figured out,” she said. “But sometimes I think it gets in the way of living too.”

Just as we were about to enter into a heart-to-heart, we noticed that the car behind us was flashing its high beams at us.

“Can you believe it?” I said. “Some jerk wants us out of his way.”

We looked at the speedometer. We were going over seventy. That’s hardly crawling.

“Let him pass you if he’s in such a hurry,” I said.

The flashing didn’t stop. Pesha and I started cursing the guy out. Using profanity in the car always makes us laugh. I felt a little better.

In another second the flasher pulled up to the right side of us.

“Don’t even look at him!” I said.

The two of us lambasted the flasher in the cartoonish voices we created in childhood. Pesha said, “If anybody heard us, they’d think we were total idiots.” Whenever I feel miserable, picturing people thinking that I’m a total idiot brings me some perverse measure of cheer. Sometimes I think I’d feel better about life if the people I know now could have seen me in the days I imitated my professors or danced like a clown in freshman year in college.

We didn’t make eye contact with the flasher. We really showed him. He sped ahead and drove out of sight.

In that reptilian part of my consciousness that lies awake even when my unhappy conscious mind wants to sleep, I thought the flasher might be trying to tell us something. I looked at the dashboard and saw an accordion-looking symbol I had never seen before. Three-quarters of it was grayed out. The bottom quarter was flaming red.

I shouted, “The car’s overheating! Pull over!”

A Greyhound bus was bearing down on us. We were trapped in the center lane.

“We’ve got to get off the road!”

Pesha said, “Everything’ll be alright.”

How could she be so calm? We were going to die in a fireball. I thought, “It’s true what they say: Never go to bed angry at anybody.”

Earlier in the day, my son told me he didn’t want me to take a job in China with an English-language newspaper while he was working in Shanghai this summer. I told him to mind his own business. Now that I was about to be burnt beyond recognition, I wished I had understood that no twenty-one-year-old guy wants his mother within ten thousand miles of him when he is working at his first serious job, hanging out with friends and meeting girls.

The bus passed us on the right, but now we had to wait for an eighteen-wheeler to lumber by too.

“I smell something burning!”

“It’ll be fine.”

Now that the possibility of flaming out on the Turnpike looked like a real possibility, I wanted to keep living my worthless life.

My sister got over into the right-hand lane. We crawled on the shoulder for half a mile to the rest stop south of Exit 5. From my vantage point in the passenger seat, I saw a giant rig idling on the access ramp. I was pretty sure Pesha couldn’t see it. I was right. She was going to plow us into the rear of the truck.

I yelled, “A truck! A truck!”

Pesha didn’t have a split second to look in the rear view mirror to make sure nobody was behind us. She swerved around the rig and kept going until we were able to pull into Bob’s Big Boy parking lot.

“Turn it off and get out!”

I hurried round the back to see what the flasher had seen.

The trunk was open. At the Citgo station, my sister had pulled up on the lever and released the latch on the trunk. Now I remembered hearing it open up. I was so dedicated to blaming the gas station attendant for trying to rip me off that I hadn’t bothered to go outside and slam down the trunk.

The moral of the story?

If you’re going to be depressed, understand that you will lose the sixth sense that comes to your aid when your other senses fail you.

Recognize that the ongoing battle in your head — God versus evolution — will leave you wondering if God has your life in His hands or if you had a close call with death because life has no room for the downhearted.

Consider that sometimes those creeps on the road mean you no harm.

Consider too that unhappiness is as mysterious as happiness and is every bit as much the unexpected guest. One time, for example, I caught a whiff of Irish Spring soap and, for no good reason, I thought about a boy from my kindergarten days. I was happy for a week. Another time I went with a friend to an Argentine restaurant and did some half-baked facsimile of tango with him that dispelled the haze of misery that had choked me for weeks.

A scent, a dance — the liberator will be small and stray. I am waiting.


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Entry filed under: Emotions, Judaism, Travel. Tags: , , .

The marrying kind If a memory falls in the woods

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Urban Renaissance  |  April 12, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    What a beautiful post. I am right there with you (or where you were, until recently) in the Slough of Despond.

    You hit so well on the danger of depression, that we don’t tune into the real hazards around us. And yet, there is something so necessary, so fundamentally human about the need to wallow in depression, at least for a short while. All my art is born that way. Given the last year, I have enough embryonic art to last me a lifetime.

  • 2. Mirel  |  April 12, 2010 at 9:51 AM

    I absolutely loved this story. One of your best!

  • 3. Urban Renaissance  |  April 12, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    More thoughts: A job may not be enough to get one out of the Slough of Despond, or to prevent one falling in. Recall that Christian fell in, not only because of the burden on his back, but because of his fear.

    From http://www.gutenberg.org/files/131/131.txt
    CHR. Sir, said Christian, I was bid go this way by a man called
    Evangelist, who directed me also to yonder gate, that I might escape
    the wrath to come; and as I was going thither I fell in here.

    {32} HELP. But why did not you look for the steps?

    [b]CHR. Fear followed me so hard, that I fled the next way, and fell in.[/b]

    I don’t think the fear goes away once you start working again. The fear, once unemployment has struck, lasts forever.

  • 4. modestine  |  April 12, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    To Urban Renaissance and Mirel: A heartfelt thank you for your comments. I came back to my blog just now with the intention of taking down my “Gloomy Gus” post and replacing it with something a bit more frothy. Rest assured, I am not about to open a vein. I haven’t thought about any GW Bridge histrionics. The fact is, though, that I don’t always feel so chipper. And it’s hard for me to believe that most people drift through their lives on an emotional yacht. The truth is, sometimes I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew … I could use a week of eating french fries and drinking pineapple juice on Magen’s Bay.

  • 5. Urban Renaissance  |  April 12, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    Don’t worry. I wasn’t imagining any GW Bridge drama! Isn’t that sad, that we have to worry about other people worrying about our being down, and can’t even enjoy (if that term can be used) brief descents into melancholia.

    Bunyan had it right: The Slough of Despond is a part, sometimes a necessary part, of our journey through life, and as with all our travels, we emerge from it with a deeper knowledge of ourselves. And that is a good thing.

    • 6. modestine  |  April 12, 2010 at 12:13 PM

      Dear Urban. Thank you for putting me in the same slough as Bunyan. What you write reminds me of what Milton thought about sin: It was the way back to being good.

      You are right about my being concerned about people being concerned about me!

  • 7. Max  |  April 13, 2010 at 4:58 PM

    It is interesting how a anger can make a person misjudge things or forget things that they normally wouldn’t. I remember that during a history class in high school we were talking about racism, and I was getting heated because some of my classmates didn’t really see racism as such a huge issue. My teacher then read a passage from an essay that included some of the most racist things I had ever heard in my life. He asked the class to tell him about the author. I was so angry about the whole issue, that I blurted out, “he’s obviously an ignorant, despicable racist!” my teacher said, “no, he’s a satirist.” After much embarrassment I reread the passage and realized that it was quite blatant satire. It just goes to show that sometimes you obsess so much about being angry, you are willing to let anything fuel that anger, even if there is no reason for it to.


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