my life I was crazy about cars, starting with the family Studebaker
designed by Raymond Loewy that looked like one of the World War II
fighter planes I drew all over my school notebooks. Within days after
turning 16, like every other middle-class American kid growing up
anywhere but Manhattan, I got my driver's license and took off. And
so began a vast archive of car memories, moments and places recalled
through bug-spattered, rain-streaked, sun-dried glass. I assumed the
trip would never end.
unknown to me, the encoding in my DNA was relentlessly transmitting
suicide instructions to my eyes, one of a class of genetic retinal
pathologies called retinitis pigmentosa. Which led, after a few
decades of normal vision, to a state where I could no longer see
at night or make out faces clearly from more than a few feet away,
and that under bright light.
reading and writing, there were optical magnifiers and a computer
program that enlarged the text on my monitor. For driving, though,
there was nothing, no clever new adaptive technology, no compensatory
strategy, nothing but the prospect of relinquishment.
couldn't imagine a life without wheels. So, holding my breath and
trusting to luck and reflexes, I stayed on the road, a little too
The phone on the night stand rang, shattering my last dream of the
I mumbled, peering over at my clock radio with the jumbo two inch
high red LED display. Just past 6:30.
was the woman from the Substitute Unit of the L.A. Unified School
District, brisk and focused as a taxi dispatcher.
didn't know how much more substitute teaching I could take. I couldn't
make out the students' faces beyond the front row. I couldn't, without
assistance, read roll sheets, notes from the office, textbook passages
or handed-in assignments.
even more upsetting was the sheer ordeal of simply getting to work.
By this time, my eyesight was severely compromised. Traffic signals
had started vanishing and reappearing--the whole signal box, not
just the bulbs--as if conjured in and out of sight by mischievous
sprites. Street signs were unreadable. Cars loomed up at me out
of nowhere, and pedestrians materialized in the middle of empty
woman from the Sub Unit read my assignment from a sheet on her desk.
I was to fill in for an English teacher at a middle school halfway
into the sun. Another harrowing commute.
you might reasonably ask, would someone with vision so impaired
persist in driving? Romance. Practicality. Pride. Denial.
I was a teenager, I had a stack of Hot Rod and Custom Car magazines
that dwarfed everything else in my bedroom bookcase. I pored lovingly
over the pictures: the burly postwar Fords, the lean mid-'50s Chevys,
the gleaming bodies shaved clean of jutting Detroit chrome, the
running gear pumped up and re-machined to burn the rear treads off
a set of Goodyears in a single standing start.
cars in my real life were less fierce, less perfect. But so what?
They started, they ran, they carried me down the highway of dreams.
Like the '41 Chevy coupe I drove to Mexico from Ohio in 1966, vaporizing
a quart of oil every hundred miles all the way to San Miguel de
Allende, Guanajuato State, and back. Like the VW microbus with its
salt-rotted floorboard that carried me over the Bay Bridge into
San Francisco a year later during the Summer of Love.
I had a 10-year-old Tercel that took me anywhere I wanted to go,
with the tape deck blasting Los Lobos or Mozart or Coltrane. Driving
wasn't everything, just life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness,
and the promise that I would never, ever grow old, that I would
not fade away.
I stopped driving, what would I do? There is just a beleaguered
fleet of buses roaming L.A., trying gamely to run on time and connect
at enough points to be useful. True, there are also two new light-rail
commuter lines and the halting start of a subway system. But the
rail service, by design, has little to do with in-town travel.
Ask an Angeleno (who drives) how far it is from here to there when
both ends of the trip are within the metropolitan area. "Twenty
minutes," goes the most common answer, with the inevitable addendum,
"unless it's rush hour." Car time. But if you don't drive, a morning
doctor's appointment in Beverly Hills, a business lunch in West
Hollywood, a five-minute stop at an office supply store on the Miracle
Mile and a trip to the supermarket become agenda items spread over
several pages of a weekly calendar.
had always assumed that you rode the bus in L.A. only if you were
not a player, not a contender. Riding the bus meant being sucked
into a symbolic, bottomless vortex of personal failure. I was terrified.
did stop using my car at night, which often meant staying home alone.
But that was the lowest I was willing to bow to circumstances.
The question arises as to whether an individual with impaired vision
is morally obligated, even with some functional sight remaining,
to stop driving. There are some people with RP who even insist that
their retinal pathologies make them safer drivers because they are
forced to be more vigilant.
my case, denial was abetted by a sympathetic ophthalmologist and
the California Department of Motor Vehicles. I managed to get my
driver's license renewed solely on the strength of a note from the
doctor attesting to my fitness to drive. This in the face of my
inability to decipher anything below the top two lines of the DMV
had the Beverly Boulevard route to the school pretty much hammered
from long experience. Whether I could see the traffic lights at
first glance or not, I knew which cross streets had them, and I'd
become pretty good at telling the color of a light by watching traffic.
made it through all the major intersections--La Brea, Highland,
Vine, Western--like a champ, talking myself down the road. The lettering
on the store signs, the big ones I could still see, went from English
to Korean to Spanish.
At Vermont, I took a right, went two blocks, and there was the school.
Praying that a phantom 18-wheeler wasn't bearing down through one
of my blind spots to pulverize me in mid-turn, I took a left into
the street and began to peer along the curb for a parking space.
Across from me, headed the other way, was a short line of double-parked
cars, parents dropping off their kids. I couldn't have been going
The sickening thud of my front bumper hitting flesh and bone. My
right foot coming off the gas and slamming down on the brake pedal.
The car stopped just short of an airborne boy, maybe 12 or 13, levitating
a few inches above the pavement as his unzipped nylon school bag
launched itself from his shoulder and spewed notebooks, pencils
and personal effects all over the street.
kid lay sprawled in a heap on the pavement. A car door slammed somewhere
off to my left, and then a woman, his mother, was kneeling beside
him, crooning and fussing, her face a mask of incredulous fury completely
at odds with her tender ministrations. By the time I managed to
turn off the engine and get out, she had helped him hobble back
to their old Toyota sedan and lowered him onto the back seat, where
he sat with the door still flung open, dazed and splay-limbed, holding
his back. It never even occurred to me to go and see how the boy
was, I felt so shaken, so ashamed, so uninvited. I just stood next
to my car, watching as people emerged from nowhere. Someone went
to a phone and called 911, and then sirens came speeding toward
us up the avenue.
The paramedics lifted the kid onto a gurney, asking him questions
and taking his vital signs. As the mother stood behind the ambulance
watching them shove the gurney inside, I finally got up the nerve
to approach her. She was talking in Spanish with a man who had come
over from the auto body shop across from the school.
"Lo siento, señora" I said. "Lo siento mucho. I¹m very sorry." She
wouldn't even look at me. The man from the body shop wasn¹t so reticent.
"I seen it, man," he snarled. "You seen him and you just keep going."
And I thought, yes, that's exactly what it must have looked like.
took the boy to a hospital emergency room, and the bystanders drifted
away. I found a parking space and waited on the curb for the LAPD,
who showed up an hour later to take the accident report.
"I just didn't see him," I admitted, which was true. The officer
didn't ask me anything about that, but simply said the kid shouldn't
have jaywalked in front of my car, which was also true. She got
my signature, tore off a copy of the report for me, and drove away.
told me they knew in the school office what had happened. If I wanted,
I could go home. I did want to go home. Desperately.
got back into my car, fastened my seat belt, started the engine,
felt how much I was shaking, and turned it off. I went into the
office, borrowed the phone, and got my friends Adrian and Gina out
of bed out in Marina del Rey. Adrian drove me home, with Gina following,
and put the Tercel back in its space behind my apartment.
filed reports with my insurance company and the DMV. Then I called
the school district and requested that I be called only for assignments
that were a walk or a direct bus ride from home. The request was
denied. So much for substitute teaching.
next few weeks, I spent a lot of time in my apartment, only leaving
home for errands I could accomplish on foot. I tried taking the
car out one more time to the neighborhood Laundromat. But even that
short trip, eight blocks up and back, unnerved me.
finally facing facts, I put the car up for sale and surrendered
my driver's license for a California ID card, which looked, photo
and all, exactly like my license and bore the same number they had
given me 25 years before at a San Francisco DMV office, next to
the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, where the Grateful Dead played for
nothing from flatbed trucks amidst the aromatic eucalyptus trees,
and everything was new and infinitely possible.
one ever contacted me about the accident. Not my insurance company,
not the school or the DMV, not a personal injury lawyer. I felt
justified in assuming--thankfully--that the boy wasn't hurt too
still, every time I think about it, my hands remember the weird,
rubber shock of the impact through the steering wheel, and I see
the whole thing all over again. The boy bouncing off the hood of
the Tercel in slow motion. The books flying. The gurney sliding
into the open mouth of the ambulance. The rage and disbelief on
his mother's face. Some things, some of us only learn the hard way.
siento, señora. Lo siento mucho.
published in the Los Angeles Times,
Life & Style Section, Thursday, March 6, 1997
Copyright 1997, 2001 Joel M. Deutsch.
All rights reserved
Republication or distribution in any medium prohibited without express,
written consent of the author