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Saturday, March 01, 2014


Working in Coffeehouses Dept.: A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were clearing our driveway of an impressive accumulation of snow, she working the shovel and me wielding a large, noisy snowblower. We’re on a state highway that’s kept pretty clear, but persistent winds continued to undo the work of the plows on a road already narrowed by big, dirty berms.

Traffic had been minimal. Only the occasional Amish cart seemed at home in the snow. Then we heard a far-off roar. A small Honda with a distressed muffler came wailing by, doing at least 60 in a 35 mph zone. We stared after it in astonishment and anger.

We finished clearing the driveway soon after and set off on an un-postponeable trip. About seven miles along the road, just before a NYS Thruway entrance, we saw the Honda tipped at nasty angle, its nose submerged in snowbank. A cop car was nearby. An agitated kid danced in front of a trooper, his body language a festival of denial.

A wave of schadenfreude came over me. “I shouldn’t feel good about this,” I said as we continued our trip, “but the son-of-a-bitch brought it on himself.”
“You’re right,” my daughter said. “You shouldn’t feel good about it,”

“That’s why it’s called schadenfreude,” I protested. “It means – ”

“I know what it means. That’s why you shouldn’t do it.”

She spoke with irritation, but I couldn’t find any self-righteousness, of which I’d happily accuse her if I could. Although 17 is an age that invites friction with one’s aged parents, she’s enough of a contrarian to resist doing that. But she’s rarely bashful about speaking her mind.

As when we were driving home from her school in Troy a few nights ago and, as we left the Thruway and traveled the home stretch on our rural street, I complained about the headlights of oncoming cars.

“They blind me,” I told her. “If they even bother to dim their brights, they’ve all got these goddamn million-candlepower fog lights on at all times. Why should I do them any favors?”

“I don’t want to hear about it,” she said. “You should dim your lights because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Yeah, but – ”

“That’s why I don’t want to talk about it. It’s your battle, not mine.”

Which brought back a memory of a walk I took one afternoon in the Connecticut town of my own teenhood. Although I was not yet old enough to drive, my father had started me teaching me how to work the stick on his VW Bug, figuring that I might as well have that aspect of driving under control as the legal age approached – reasoning, correctly, as it turned out, that the training vehicles the high school supplied for Driver Ed would be automatics.

This had made me much more aware of his driving. And I became aware of his tendency to speed.

“Speed limit’s 35 here,” I’d announce. “How come you’re doing 50?”

He’d try to ignore me. I’d persist. I felt the unbeatable support of moral righteousness, and hammered him with a persistence I’d learned from hearing my mother go after him in their frequent fights.

“Goddammit,” he said one day after I’d hit the speeding pretty hard. “Leave me alone!”

“What if we get hurt?”

“You’re not going to get hurt!”

“But the speed limit is 35!”

He pulled over. I jumped out of the car without waiting to be invited to do so. It was probably a five-mile walk back home. Plenty of time to examine what self-righteousness had won me.

But I still can’t help but smile at the thought of that Honda in the snowbank.

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