Southern Drivers

categories: Cocktail Hour


 My daughter learned the word “douchebag” recently.  Since she is in first grade this is not a particularly good thing.  Of course she learned it from me.  And, of course, since I rarely use the word in normal conversations, she learned it from hearing me yell it at other cars and drivers while I was behind the wheel.  “Douchebag,” if you really think about it, is a strange word to use in reference to other motorists, but it’s also one of my favorites.  When I drive I am often surrounded by douchebags, and though it feels good to yell it out loud, I’m always left feeling a little bad afterward.  My hope is that the word doesn’t take hold in Hadley’s mind, and that she won’t start using it when we visit my Mom’s for Christmas.

            I was born and weaned–as a driver as well as a human–in Massachusetts, earning my chops in Boston, so that even New York–with its orderly streets and clear, if complex, rules of cab etiquette—seemed easy.  When I moved South, seven years ago, I assumed that the drivers would be NASCAR fans, and would therefore be fast and aggressive.  I assumed wrong.  If you are searching for a Southern cliché, think more of a hot day on the front porch of a mansion, lazily fanning yourself while rocking and sipping lemonade and staring at the bugs.  There is an intense sluggishness to the typical Southern driver.  It turns out that most of them, rather than drive like drunk bootleggers, actually float along in a stoned haze.  For instance they will stare at an about-to-change light, not with anticipation, but with a kind of mild, gauzy curiosity.  And when it does actually turn they will react not with quick foot down on the gas, as is their civic duty, but with a moment or two of lethargic appreciation, admiring the color change as if they were on LSD.  Though you could romanticize this if you like—oh, it must be so relaxed where you live, how sweet—there is at core a selfishness to this non-responsiveness.  I wasn’t joking about “civic duty”: if you fail to concentrate and don’t make that left when the red arrow turns green, the poor sucker three cars back will not make that light

          Still: if you are used to driving in cold northern cities you might insist that this is all sweet and quaint.  Let me say again that it is not.  I suppose what drives me most crazy, at root, is the inherent lack of ambition in this driving style.  What is ambition, after all, but wanting to get to someplace other than the place where you are now?  But these drivers seem content to float through life, drifting down highways that wind along like lazy, sinuous paths through the Land of the Lotus Easters.  It’s scary in its slowness, made more so by the fact that this overall vibe is not entirely consistent: just as you are being lulled into the communal drug-like state, barely accelerating at lights yourself, one of the drivers will leap out of their truck (plastered with the requisite confederate flag sticker and a sticker that says something like “How’s That Hopey-Changey Thing Working for You?”) and charge and threaten to kill you.  It really messes you up—this inconsistency.  It’s as if you are daydreaming on a beach in Hawaii, the waves lapping and ukulele strings plucking, while a psycho killer lurks behind the palms.

            Since I hector my students about the need for some growth or change in their characters in stories and essays, even short ones, I will follow my own advice.  The change here is not just a plot device either: I have evolved over the last seven years, becoming a mellower, quieter, and no doubt safer driver.  When the left arrow turns green I accept my fate, knowing I won’t be making that turn for at least another cycle or two of light changes.  I try to attribute this to sociological reasons—people in warmer climates are less inclined to move around a lot—or to even put a positive spin on it: it shows a more Zen-like approach to life.  But, deep down, I believe there should be strict punishments for slow reaction time and for un-ambitious driving in general.  At heart I know I am no Zen monk: inside me rages the need to be somewhere else.

  1. kristen lanzer writes:

    oh no
    i responded to the wrong story/page
    this is
    like a cocktail hour
    one too many stories and
    i’m just a chatty patty to anyone

    where’s the bathroom?

    ps how do i get outta here
    (after i bookmark this site of course)

    • dave writes:

      Hey Kristen,

      Welcome to our little party. The bathrooms are to the left.
      There’s no way out.

      Best, Dave

  2. kristen lanzer writes:

    (new to the cocktail hour…nice to meet yous)

    damn you
    and thank you

    your words have absorbed my attention now for a couple hours

    my best to you bill
    through your recovery
    have patience man


  3. Margaret writes:

    Obviously, no one here has driven in Memphis. Driving 65 in a 55 mph speed zone is considered slow and zig-zagging through traffic, pretending to be in a Nascar race is the norm. I should say, however, that it has expanded my vocabulary. I have come up with new and imaginative compound cuss words.

  4. George de Gramont writes:

    There is the germ of a terrific novel in this essay. CdG loved the drawing!

  5. Peter Peteet writes:

    Like John I am Southern, unreconstructed and zen-like but it is more from a place of Celtic idleness.The need to be somewhere else is balanced by the need to be here and prepared…to react to the fireball which may emerge from beneath my hood(or my neighbors),to have the ready retort for the charging armed racist,to spot the humorous poem in the maze of graffiti.The cunning,lying,vicious dog that is the future is not my master;I am not ahead of you in the left turn lane because I am on the scenic San Francisco route with only right turns.
    Unless,of course,my better half is side seat driving and then I will honk,tailgate and curse my merry way through this dance of death-for love-of course.Also because I can,because two great metal steeds have been crushed around me and I yet live,so how could I fear such puny,daily dangers?I have even driven “totals”-cars which the wrecking yards receive running but unrepairable and use(often sans roof,fenders,hood or other niceties)to careen among the bloody hulks and gather useful bits from the long lines of crumpled death boxes.
    Beep Beep!
    Be filled with care.

  6. nina writes:

    Driving in the South is fine if you don’t actually have to go anywhere.

    What I don’t like: when that light finally does change, the cars in front of you turn very very very carefully — as if they’re carrying live amunition, and don’t dare make sudden movements.

    What I do like: even if you’re searching in your bag for something, and are in fact the cause for the people behind you waiting through another cycle of lights, nobody ever honks. It does make the day nicer, nobody honking.

  7. Erica writes:

    Hm. Yep. Don’t miss Wilmington driving at all. I like it up here, where it’s reckless and fast and I actually get where I’m going.

    Unless there’s an accident, of course. Because people are rubberneckers anywhere you go. That’s just an inevitable fact.


  8. Tommy writes:

    Wake up and smell the wisteria, you yankee boys. It stinks so purty you can smell it all the way down in the street, inside your smelly cars. If that don’t make you want to slow down and enjoy the sights and sounds, then just put your head down and keep on drivin’, straight out of town.

    And that ain’t lem-onaide we’re sipping beneath those lazy porch fans. It’s sweet tea. And it’s made from real tea, with lemon, and a little bit of sugar, and everyonceinawhile some mint, if someone’s pinched some from their garden, and it doesn’t come from a gallon jug down at the Piggly Wiggly.

    And dude, if waitin’ for the left turn at the wrong time of day onto Market from New Center Drive is harshin’ your mellow just because the car you’re drivin’ has out-lived most of its peers – do what I do.

    Go straight through the intersection, pull a uey or a looey, depending on where ever you are from, at the next turn around, and come back around in the right turn lane. And if it’ll make you feel better, while you’re turnin’ right onto Market, you can huck a lugey at all those suckers still cued up behind the jerk who didn’t understand that it’s o.k. for the last left-turner to turn as the light is turning red, what a MORON!

    • Tommy writes:

      Uh…, just so’s there’s no misconceptions……, that “moron” was directed at the last left turner who didn’t make the light.

  9. John Jack writes:

    I reckon I am one of those drivers who wonders whatever happened to courteous driving. I ain’t talking about letting a stream of line cutting vehicles who just came up to a side road into traffic that’s been waiting for the damn bascule bridge to let the boats go by and closed for a half hour with traffic backed up to another town.

    I’m talking about the simple courtesies, like not beeping a horn because the driver up front is a little dazed by the myriad of traffic signals, traffic signs, and helter-skelter hectic flybying traffic intersection of an eight-lane road with an eight-lane road, and two or more of each of the four cardinal directions left-turn only lanes and one or more of each cardinal direction right-turn only lanes and not having the first clue which way is the right way forward and wondering whether someone equally dazed by all the optical noise is going to plow through a red light anyway.

    And no mercy for the road warriors who believe they own my meaning space and believe they can laird over me like I’m some medieval serf. Where’s the fire anyway?

    I timely leave early so I’m not in such a rush I need to get there before I left. And wow, get there a little early, the doctor’s, the dentist’s, before the store closes, before the government kremlins start staring at the quitting time clock, and in a mood that doesn’t upset the people on the other side of the counter. Lot’s easier to get in ahead of time in an agreeable mood and timely accomplish something.

    On time is late in my book. Fifteen minutes early is my policy. Gosh shucks, more often than not, fifteen minutes early and I’m once and done finished half an hour early and walking out noting all the late comers simmering about being held up. Slow is actually faster and more pleasant for taking the time to enjoy the ride, the scenery, chuckle at the rash rages of all the rats running the rodent wheel mazes.

  10. Matt Tullis writes:

    I do not miss driving in Wilmington at all. Nothing, and I mean nothing, made me angrier than sitting and waiting to turn left on Market from New Center Drive, knowing for a fact that I was going to sit through at least three cycles of the light because of the people staring at the pretty lights changing color. It didn’t help that I was driving a 1991 Dodge Shadow that had no air conditioning and leaked exhaust fumes into the car’s interior.

  11. john lane writes:

    Hello, my name is John and I am one of those slow Southern, non-aggressive drivers and proud of it. I am unreconstructed in my Zen-like approach to driving. If I had a blog like this I would write a similar piece about the my time as a Southern boy driving the Turnpikes of Northern Aggression in New York and Boston and how much I hated it. Merry Christmas David! I’m glad you seem to be out from under your tarball deadline.