I want to register a complaint about car windshields. Well, maybe it’s not really a complaint –I’m sure they try their best- it’s more of an observation on anonymity, I guess. Another iteration on the theme of unintended consequences. Let me presage it with a question –how often do you really know who is waving to you from behind the steering wheel? Even seeing their hands is one thing, but identifying them…? And, in time to decide whether or not to wave back…? I’m sorry, but this is a serious issue –especially in a small village. Offend one person by refusing to acknowledge their social largesse, and next thing you know, your phone is tapped… Okay, just your garbage can gets knocked over, but it’s only a matter of scale, isn’t it?
I made it through Grade 9 physics (I think) so I’m fully appreciative of the properties reflected light, and its effect on the human psyche. Or maybe that was the rainbow -I was never clear on that. So, because the windshield is slanted, any light beam that hits it, reflects off on its angle of incidence and destroys whatever it hits… No, that was the Death Ray -I’ve always had trouble sifting out the other stuff I was reading at the time. Anyway, the fact that the light is reflected makes it devilishly difficult to distinguish any readily identifiable features –birthmarks, scars, or the tell-tale grey of the drivers. Wedding rings are also hard to spot, although they occasionally reflect light differently if they want.
But I hope you get my meaning. This unforeseen defect has probably ruined marriages, and falsely excluded countless lonely people from the encouragement that might have helped them make it through their otherwise meaningless existences as they wended their purposeless ways down isolated, winding, forest-lined roads just hoping for a wave… Take me, for example. Actually, I’m not lonely; I just put that in for the effect.
I needed a muffin; it happens. I’m not good with muffins –if they’re there, I eat them. If they’re not, I buy them. As it happens, the penchant for muffins –or their proxies- had ‘unduly girded my loins’ as was implied in a mysterious Facebook posting the other day. And so, vacationing as I do on the edge of a 4 kilometre, isolated, winding, forest-lined road, I decided that walking it would amply justify the muffin consumption at the other end.
It was not my intention to ride my bike, nor to dabble in the soul-destroying practice of aurally preoccupying my pilgrimage with those little ear-things that make the younger generation continually bob their heads and mouth stuff. No, it was a journey naked of accoutrements and unadorned with bling. There was not so much a purpose –I had yet to decide what kind of muffin; nor a timeline –I’m retired. I had all day… No, merely a destination, a goal, I had set for myself. I would commune with the trees, listen to the birds, and forest-bathe along the way. I would, in effect, be cleansed. Well, tired, anyway –and I figured I’d probably hitchhike back to make up for it.
The problem, of course, was that I hadn’t anticipated all the traffic. There are no sidewalks, and only token, gravel shoulders on either side of the road, so a good portion of my journey was avoidance, not communion. I walked facing the traffic, of course but that meant that the drivers were on the far side of the vehicle. I wonder if anybody thought of that when they were designing these things.
Some of them seemed to be waving at me –I could make out motion in the driver’s seat- but judging by the horns, and the screeching brakes if they happened upon me coming down a hill, I began to wonder if it was friendly. Naturally, I sometimes waved back –I mean, it seemed the friendly thing to do- but after one or two slowed and yelled stuff through their open windows, I decided to keep my hands in my pockets and pretend I had an outer ear disability.
But, suppose they’d been friends –not the ones who yelled toilet words at me, but the ones who merely gestured unseen behind the wheel; the ones who honked in surprise at seeing someone actually walking on the road; or the ones who applied their brakes in honour of my unexpected presence? What if they knew me and I hadn’t acknowledged the bond? Hadn’t reciprocated their existential cries for recognition and undone years of expensive psychotherapy? What if? I mean the potential ramifications of neglect can be profound and, in my case at least, extend until the next car threatened my identity.
I mentioned this to a friend I found sitting at the bakery. As it happens, we both like gluten, and had each ordered peach bran, super-muffins with an extra pat of butter –I had actually ordered three pats, but he showed me how to cover the surface using only two. I had to justify spreading the third on anyway by mentioning that I had walked to the bakery.
“Whoa,” he said and smiled. That, plus waving his knife at me was all he could do with his mouth already full.
I wasn’t sure if he was telling me to put the butter down, or just being friendly, but the confusion did let me describe my problem with people waving from cars. “You can’t see their hands through the windshields when they’re driving, Jim,” I said, and then took an especially large, butter-filled bite.
He nodded as if it wasn’t all exercise and health being a pedestrian –there were issues as well.
“I never know whether or not to wave back if I sense some purposive arm-movement behind the steering wheel,” I continued.
“Are you not allowed to wave if you don’t know them?” He asked, in the short interval between swallowing and re-biting.
I thought about it while I chewed. “Well… I suppose it would help if I at least knew if it was a hand or a fist they were waving.”
“Good point,” he said, although the words were heavy with bran and muffled with a bit of peach his tongue had just found. He worked his way through the peach in silence. “But a wave,” he said, when there was enough room in his mouth to let more than saliva escape, “A wave can also mean ‘I’m sorry I was walking on the road and made you drop the phone you were using’”.
I stopped chewing for a moment. “We’re not supposed to be using our cell phones while driving… It’s illegal.” I licked some butter off my lips. “Not to mention dangerous…”
“So is walking on the road.” He was no longer chewing either.
He sounded rather engaged in the issue, I thought. “Where else is there to walk on these roads?” I asked, politely.
That seemed to stump him. It was something he’d likely never asked himself. “Maybe on the shoulder on the way to the bus stop…?” I could tell he was trying to be friendly, but there was an edge to his voice.
“And if you don’t want to take the bus?”
He rolled his eyes, no doubt wondering what kind of a person he was talking to. “Aren’t there trails out there somewhere…” He smiled, obviously satisfied with his solution –all forests have trails… He burped and sat back in his chair to digest.
I found a little extra butter on my plate, scooped it up with my knife, and slathered it on the remnants of my muffin while he watched enviously. “The only trail near my place goes over to the lake and then follows the stream bed up a hill to a lookout.”
He looked defeated for a minute and then sighed noncommittally. Guiltily, I thought.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I suppose should have waved at you.” The words just slipped out without warning through all the butter still on my lips.
He shot forward on his seat as if he suddenly wondered if he had another muffin waiting for him on the plate. “Thought you couldn’t see through the windshield…” he harrumphed, disguising his surprise with the sudden extraction of a piece of wayward peach from his front teeth.
“Didn’t have to, Jim –you were on the other side of the road and your window was open.”
“That wasn’t me…” I could see his eyes desperately flitting around the room so they wouldn’t have to perch on my face. “And anyway, I didn’t recognize you in that hat.”
I manufactured a suitably neutral expression for my face and then massaged it with a napkin –you can’t be too careful with all that butter. Time for forgiveness; I had chosen to vacation here after all. “Want to give me a ride back?” I said, now certain that I had removed all the muffin from my chin. “I can watch out for pedestrians while you’re on your phone…” It seemed like a neighbourly thing to offer.