So, it’s after 8 p.m. and I’m on the 15, heading north from Verdun. At this time of the evening there should be little traffic and I am holding a speed of a steady 80 km/h, just 10 km/h over the speed limit. Suddenly out of nowhere a pair of headlights (high beams, no less) appear in my rearview mirror just meters behind my car and the driver leans on his horn, forcing me into what is supposedly the slow lane. He quickly disappears from view, and I judge his speed to be 120 km/h plus.
A bit shaken, I see my exit coming up, flash my right turn signal and slow down to veer toward it. Just as I am about to move into the exit lane, a car cuts across three lanes, swings in front of me, while nearly smashing into the concrete divide. I brake hard, almost hitting his rear fender. Loud rap music fills the night as I move into the adjacent lane. For a moment, I think about yelling some obscenity or giving him the finger, but think better of it as we come to a red light at the corner of Sherbrooke and Girouard. The driver revs his engine while waiting for the light to change, but before it does, he blasts through on the red, his tires screeching, his muffler backfiring, and his exhaust emitting black smoke like some dragon of yore, belching fire.
I am now on the Giant Slalom course that is NDG amid the orange pylons that litter the neighborhood. Every second street has a sign that reads: Circulation locale seulement, and what would normally take fifteen minutes turns into a white-knuckled ride of thirty-five. It does not help that the Trans Am that is behind me is tailgating dangerously. Finally, he passes me on the right, going up onto the sidewalk and hurling invectives because I have maintained the speed limit as he thunders by.
Why is it that Montreal drivers are vying for the Worst Drivers in the World award? I have driven in several countries, but Montreal has to have the most impatient and aggressive drivers on this planet. Each time I venture out in my car, I can count at least 3-4 accidents that I have narrowly avoided. Is it because it is so easy to obtain a driver’s license here? Is it true that the only rules you need to follow are: when the light turns orange, speed up; when changing lanes on the Decarie Expressway, never reach for the turn signal since your hand will be too busy texting and you might get into an accident. Finally, when coming to a four way stop, gun right through since it is less dangerous than trying to determine the etiquette of who should go first, and NEVER NEVER maintain a speed limit of 30 km/h lest the car behind you smashes (justifiably) into you for going too slow. Not even in a school zone.
I obtained my Quebec permis de conduire over 50 years ago. When I went to take my final exam, The Regie office was at the corner of Cavendish and Sherbrooke. My examiner was a dour man, reeking of tobacco and holding a cold cup of coffee. He squirmed uncomfortably in the passenger seat giving the impression that he really had to go to the toilet. We pulled out of the parking lot in the test vehicle and he told me to turn right onto Sherbrooke, then right at the next intersection down toward de Maisonneuve. When I came to a full stop and signalled to turn right, he looked at me almost distastefully. Unfortunately, there was a long line of cars coming along the boulevard where I wanted to turn. After an almost three minute wait, he groaned: “Mais voyons donc… esti de calisse de tabarnak…” I took this as a signal to proceed into the flow of traffic as quickly as possible and did so, gunning the car forward despite a long row of vehicles rapidly approaching. We sped along the street for a block, having avoided a disastrous collision by a hair breath, and he looked at me and almost smiled, telling me to turn back up Cavendish. The whole exam had taken just over 10 minutes, and I was sure he would fail me for my maneuver. Still, hanging on to hope, I did what my older brother had suggested: slip a $20 bill into the paper that I had to turn over to him for his evaluation. I became a driver that day and have, uneasily, driven the roads of North America without an accident. So far.
So, why this obsession with cars, with speed, with driving on our continent? In some places in the U.S., you cannot exist without a car and there are hardly any sidewalks to traverse. Are we all Neal Cassady wanna-bes? Do we, like Kerouac, believe that “the road is life”? Americans (and Quebecers, I’m sure) are often conceived in cars, come to age in them, and often die in them. I think of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, an ode to the insane traffic that pervades our highways and to our obsession with destruction. The main characters (a man and woman) live in a high rise and watch the incessant traffic that passes below them 24/7. They fervently hope to witness an accident, a form of sexual foreplay. Ultimately, they achieve this by getting into an accident of their own and, while bloody and mangled, they make passionate love in the wreckage of their car. The ultimate orgasm.
Tonight, I have to drive somewhere. As I pull out of my garage and enter the light flow of traffic, soon about to become a gridlock on the 15 Sud, I feel a surge of adrenaline.
Then, a slight twitch, followed by (what, is it possible?) tumescence, and I roar off into the night.