Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Driven to Distraction.

For half my life I was afraid to drive cars, probably due to the fact I was in three car crashes with my father when I was a kid. The worst I got was a bang on the head but it sure was a freak-out, one time the car ended up upside down on a traffic island beside the beach at St. Kilda.

And I’ve had repetitive dreams since then of being in a runaway car, driverless, that smashed at the bottom of a hill. I’ve lost many great job opportunities because I just didn’t know how to drive capably, being too damned chicken to learn. I hot wired a stolen car when I was fifteen and played at smash’em up derbies in muddy paddocks, young and dumb enough to enjoy the danger. I rode a small motorbike when I was eighteen, then I got run over by a truck and broke my right arm, from then on I didn’t like the roads any more.

I was a nervous passenger as well, screaming like a ninny at oncoming traffic, but I saved our lives a few times, waking the driver, who then swerved back onto the road, avoiding death by a few millimeters/microseconds. Cars are the ultimate capitalist beast, the city’s structure, economy and worship designed around them, like Mammon, the horned one, all sacrificed to its hunger, wars for oil included. I was never that interested in going down on my knees to IT.

Then when I was about thirty-five I had a dream, quite lucid, I knew I was dreaming, and I was in my girlfriend Sylvia’s red Volkswagon postal van, and I was driving with her seated beside me, licking her lips. “Fuck!!! Sylvia, I’m driving, I’m driving!!! It’s wild!” “Drive faster,” she said, “you can do it! You’re in control.”

I drove into the blue mist and woke up excited, still in the driver’s seat, not afraid anymore. I went to a driving school the next day, took seven lessons, passed my driving test on the first attempt and bought myself a rust bucket for fifty bucks, a Holden Commodore that was the best car I ever had, driving it endlessly with no problems. I had it for three years but the cops eventually made me scrap it because of the rust in the floor. Every car I bought after that cost more each time and each rise in price brought with it a rise in mechanical problems.

In 1990 I bought a little blue Holden Gemini wagon for a thousand dollars, big enough in the back that I could sleep in it, and from then on, whenever I got bored, trapped and restless in the city, I shot off up the Highway to visit all the natural and historical splendors of New South Wales, the south and north Pacific coasts with untold paradise beaches, and the tablelands and calderas of the hinterland, the ancient small mountain ranges and funky Aussie country towns.

The way I lost my little blue Gemini was the time a brash young friend of mine, Mark, suggested we drive on down the Hume Highway and then cross over onto the Stuart Highway to get to Wagga Wagga, a big farmers’ town deep in the bush that I’d never visited but always had a curiosity about. He told me a friend of his was opening up  a drive-in movie theater and the premier that Friday night was an Arnie Shwartzneggar “Terminator” double-feature, which I’d already seen a few times, being a sci-fi junkie, still I figured, “What the Hell, sounds like fun, yeah?”

Wagga Wagga is an Aboriginal name meaning “meeting place of crows” and that’s a good description of our stay there. I asked two other mates to come with us on the jaunt, we all piled in and when Mark asked if he could drive I stupidly said, “Yes.” That Gemini was a shit-box automatic, good enough for a pauper gronk like me but Mark thought he was in a sporty Ferrari and drove it like he was on some Formula One race-track, ripping from low to high gear as he tore around the other vehicles lumbering up the highway.


I saw the oil lights blaze up in warning and told Mark to cool it with the Steve McQueen act but by the time we found a gas station on that endless not-so-free-way the car was gasping. I gave the poor little beast some oil but from then on it chug-chugged along like a wounded animal, no more smooth zooming, the easy life was over. Then miles from anywhere, only the yellow scorched-grass hills of deep New South Wales like the curves of a plump prehistoric woman all around us, the car slowed, wheezing, clanking, and ground to a halt.

We looked under the hood, steam and oil gushing out, a gasket’s been blown and I might blow one too if I can’t just grin and bear it. Nearby, on a hill, is a lonely farmhouse and I figured I can maybe buy a can of oil from the farmer, if he’s friendly and not an uptight redneck. I trekked up the long drive and knocked tentatively on the front door and after a few minutes a woman came to open up and stand, suspicious, in the dark shadow of the doorway.

I explained my predicament in polite tones and she looked me up and down with caring, intelligent eyes and, deciding I was the real thing, came out into the sunshine, led me to a garage out the back and handed me a can of oil. I offered her money, she refused to take it, saying she was happy to help me out. I was absolutely bowled over by her generosity and trust, understanding it to be the “Aussie bush ethos” I’d heard much about in urban legend.
Wagga Wagga

We poured the oil into the thirsty car and chug-chugged a further few miles only to have the car again come clanking to a standstill. I espied another farmhouse not far off and, hitching my jeans up, again made the trek up to its front door to beg a can of oil. And again the farmer’s wife selflessly came to my rescue, not questioning my stupidity and not taking any money. All in all I went three times to a stranger’s door and all of them were kind and trusting, Aussies helping out a traveler in difficulty on the infinite highway.

(Twenty-five years later there would be a terrible tragedy in the area, a farmer would kill his family and then himself and, it being a tight-knit community, everyone was affected and in inconsolable pain, and while I watched reports of it on TV I couldn’t help but remember the time I was broke-down and stuck in their midst. I’d long thought of their kindness, their fortitude, their confidence in their fellow countrymen, and I always said a prayer for them, not to any god, but to an all-embracing Nature.)

As the sun set, the car struggled through the last fifty kilometers, night set in and my fellow wayfarers squawked about missing the opening violence of “The Terminator”. Finally the poor little clap-trap managed to chitty-chitty-bang-bang into Wagga Wagga and over to the famous drive-in movie theater the other side of town, Arnie already up on the screen and machine-gunning the local hicks. My Gemini made the most unholy racket as it clattered onto the tarmac and up to a loudspeaker pole, farting carbon dioxide, rattling engine-parts, screeching steam, causing many an uptight car in the audience to honk their horns and flash their headlights in displeasure.

The car literally dropped dead, sagging to its rubber knees, its heartbeat silenced, its breathing cut-off with a last whistle, while I shed tears of loss. All my mates had to say about it was, “Fuck, we missed the beginning of the movie, let’s find some better seats!” As it was Mark's friends who managed the drive-in theater, they could put him onto other cars into which they could all squeeze, my compatriots ran off quick and left me to deal with my own metallic drama, letting them masturbate over the one that was up on the giant screen, more fantastic, and forget the one that was real, at their feet.

I knew the car was fucked, there would be no salvaging it as the cost of repair would be greater than the shit-box was worth: I called a local wrecking yard who said they’d buy it for a hundred bucks. I had to wait, alone and forlorn, in the dead heap for the few hours it took for the tow-truck to make its way out to the drive-in, my flesh peeling from my brain like Arnie’s while his red-laser eye stabbed into me. Eventually my dear little fuck-truck was carted away, again making much hellish uproar, clanking, rattling, screeching, the other cars honking because it was ruining Arnie’s big line, “Haste la vista!” my exit line as well.

Because I’d asked my mates along for the ride into the “big nowhere” I felt some responsibility for them and thus paid for a motel room for everybody that night plus their train fares back to Sydney the next night, that’s what a good guy I am, even though they’d deserted me for a crappy Shwartzneggar film. We got to hang around the town of Wagga Wagga for a day waiting for the train and in that way I had my curiosity about the town satisfied, it seemed a nice, almost funky place for a stop-over, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

The next car I bought was an aqua green Volkswagon Kombi van, not only could I live in it, I could cart seven friends around in it with me, which I did, many times, going on many adventures up the Pacific Highway to the surf Mecca of Byron Bay and the hippie ganjha town of Nimbin. Kombi vans are notorious vehicles to maintain, they fall apart at the slightest provocation, this metallic mistress was the one that did me in, eating up all my money and losing my sanity for me, for a short time.

It was a manual and I became extremely proficient at driving my way out of any imbroglio, like the night of a howling storm when, going up a steep hill, the engine failed and I was rolling backwards. With thunder, sleet and lightning ripping my soul from my eyes, and huge trucks roaring up my ass, I couldn’t start the fucking engine and had to keep rolling backwards, kick-starting the engine in reverse gear, miraculously achieving forward momentum before a truck plowed into me, bringing on THE END.

But it was on a sojourn to Byron Bay that the beginning of The End indeed set in and whereupon I discovered the true nature of a guy I thought was the sweetest thing since the apple that enticed Adam way back in the bullshit garden. His name was Ron and he had a big schlong which I was always trying to get my hands on except he’d never let me as he was straight. I figured maybe if I took him for a highway jaunt where we would camp at some lonely idyllic beach and I could slowly come to grips with it crashed in the back of the van deep in the night. Ron was 25, I was 40 and he must've considered taking the tiger by the tail, hanging out with me. I was big bad Toby, and it was him who came around at midnight and said, "Let's go for a ride up the coast?"

And I nearly got there too, we were snoozing on the futon in the back and I asked Ron if he was warm enough, as I put my arm over him. He mumbled he was "OK" but just as my hand was creep creeping up his leg, in surprise he knee-jerked a kick that thumped the back door of the van, which flew open, not only letting in a howling sea-breeze but automatically turning on the overhead light so that Ron sat up in fright, yelling, “What the fuck? What’s happening, what’s going on?” “Nothing to disturb your little brain about, “ I stammered, but the oaf wouldn’t settle for the rest of the night, we both tossed and turned, dawn soon erupted and then came a banging on the roof that really made us jump.

It was a policeman, bang banging till we crawled out to see what he was grumbling about. “You can’t sleep here, it’s a public beach, there’s a caravan park over yonder better suited to your needs.” He looked us up and down, at our grungy clothes and long-haired scruffiness. “What, are you hippies or something?” He made a quick search of the back of the van and found a sketch book belonging to Ron, and as he flipped through it, Ron said, “We’re artists.” 

The young cop said, “Oh yeah, so the both of you are artists? Who’s the better one out of the two of you?” Perhaps it was my hubris, or simply my seniority, as I was fifteen years older and more experienced than Ron, he’d only just graduated from art school, I couldn’t help but automatically respond, “I am.” This of course rankled Ron’s youth-inflamed ego, his face screwed up, as if thinking, “This old fag is really getting on my nerves”, and I knew he would be giving me a harder time from then on.
The cop searched the front seats of the van and found a few scraps of pot in a tin, not enough to bust us with but gave us a lecture anyway. He was young enough not to be too uptight, he even seemed to like our quirky characters, telling us with a smile to be on our way. I sighed with relief while Ron looked upon me with disgruntlement, “I’m the better fucking artist, you mad cunt!”

In my excitement at escaping a cop’s wrath I drove the van in the wrong direction, down a rutted dirt track, through scrub and gnarly tea-trees. The front bumper-bar caught on some craggy rock and half tore off, dragging along the ground, bringing us to a grinding halt as it got tangled under the wheels. I had to bash with a hammer at the remaining bolts connecting the mess of rusted iron to the front of the van till it gave way, then wrench it off and drag it into the bush, while Ron sketched clouds drifting across the sky, occasionally looking over at my hard labor.

Finally we were on the road again, zooming along the Pacific Highway, heading back to Sydney and I began to cheer up, perhaps there was still a chance of a good time for the both of us. All was going smoothly, we were humming merry tunes and laughing at our silliness for competing in arty-fartyness. Suddenly a pebble flew up and smashed the windscreen, it shattered in our faces and we had glass all over us. We cleared out the multitude of glass bits and drove on, looking for some service station that might put in a new shield. A freezing gale-force wind pressed in upon us, I was amazed at how much it slowed us down but I drove on regardless, determined to overcome this latest obstacle to my desires.

As we hurtled along the pressure of the wind was so great it caused the back door of the van to fly open and, without me quite knowing it, all the contents stashed in the back flew out and landed on the highway, the futon we slept upon, the blankets, pillows, backpacks, food parcels, all in a heap. I looked back and saw the pile of my precious camping gear like a mountainous obstacle sitting in the middle of the lane and I shat my pants.

I braked the van into a screeching stop and screamed to Ron to quickly jump out while I backed the van up, run back and drag the junk to the side of the road before some poor car coming around the bend crashed into it. Ron nonchalantly looked back then turned to me with a sullen sneer and said, “Why should I? It’s your problem!”

I couldn’t believe my ears, I cursed him and, leaving the van to idle, yanked the handbrake on, jumped out and swiftly charged back to the pile of bedding and hauled it into the gutter, all the while praying no car suddenly lurched upon me. It was indeed a miracle that no car showed up for the next few seconds as the Pacific Highway is a very busy road and the result could’ve been death and injury, for all of us. I have always had the luck of the Irish.

I reversed the van and piled all the shit into the back of it and securely locked the door this time, then headed off into the wilds, driving very slow and cautious. I was unable to look dear Ron in the face I was so pissed off. A chilly silence set in with the chilly wind blowing upon us, me thinking, “So, behind the cheeky, cute face and devil-may-care personality is an uncaring prick, fun in fair weather, useless in a crisis.

We finally found a town with a windscreen repair business but they could only do it the next morning, one more night with Ron was now impossible, I could no longer stand looking into his lackadaisical face and I told him, politely, to “fuck off”, he’d have to hitch back to Sydney. I even had to give him some money as like all young artists he was broke and starving, “Whatever, just hit the road quick.” He seemed glad to leave and I was glad to be shat of him, the fuckwit. It was a grand lesson in life, a big schlong doesn’t mean a keen heart, sharp wit or even a good time.

That was the last vehicle I ever had and the way I lost it was truly pathetic. It was about 1992 and I was cruising up the north coast, on another footloose adventure and quite smug about it. When I saw some folks standing with glum faces by their broke-down car I grinned and waved, “Suckers!” Bad carma set in, a few miles later I heard a “kerplunk!” sound, some hissing and steam issuing from the engine in back and the fucking Kombi van rolled to a stop by the side of the highway and wouldn’t go any further.

Not far off was the town of Woodford, a redneck one-dog town if ever there was one and I walked doggedly into it. There was only one car mechanic gas station in the dump and I staggered in and plead my case to the grim grease-monkey overlords. They reluctantly took me on and I had to max my credit card out to get them to tow the van the ten Ks and hoist its ass in the air for a lot of poking and banging with spanners.

Unbeknownst to me, these bush-cockies were brain-dead homophobes, they hated me on sight and determined to fuck me for the effrontery of my existence, a response I’ve endured all my life, I hardly notice it till it hits me in the face. After a few hours they told me the van’s fixed, at great cost, and I drove speedily away, thankful not to be lynched in that backward shit-hole.

Only a few Ks out of town the van broke down again, whatever it was it was the same problem as before, the dicks hadn’t fixed it at all, just ripped me off. I marched back to the fuckers and informed them of their wonderful handiwork to which they just smirked. They informed me my van was a shit-box and it would take more work to really bring it up to scratch. I was trapped in the middle of nowhere and had to agree to them again towing the van back and murdering it with spanners and hacksaws.

I had to endure more hours of hanging around, under their pea-brain eyes, until they announced it was fixed and I now owed them a few thousand dollars. I freaked, I had only seven hundred dollars in the bank, no more credit and they’d take an IOU over my dead body. I pleaded, cajoled, begged, yelled, cursed, shrieked, finally I threw myself on the ground and rolled around in the grease like a rabid mongrel, moaning, whining, crying, the most humiliating thing I’ve ever done in my life and I’ve done plenty.

To all of this they merely laughed, then fed up with my antics they sneered and told me to “Fuck off!” Again I begged for my van but they growled threats and said I wouldn’t get it back till I forked up the cash. I wanted to call the cops only these redneck types would be best friends with the local pigs. I could bring in the hippie brigade and burn down their gas station but that was beyond me and anyone I knew.

I could only gather my meager belongings from the van which I was now abandoning, no way would I ever find the thousands of dollars they demanded, the van wasn’t even worth that much. And now those cunts owned it. How they laughed in my face! I kissed it goodbye and got out on the highway to hitch back home. So much for being smug, it’s a cruel world and the weak get walked on.

In all my driving misadventures I collected seven thousand dollars worth of fines, for parking, speeding, crossing the yellow lines, not paying the fines, so much money I decided being driven to distraction wasn’t worth the cost and I let them take my license away from me. Twenty-five years later I got a letter from the Department of Main Roads saying I could come and get my license again if I wanted, I’d been punished enough and they had gone long enough without squeezing those stunning amounts of money from me for the privilege of driving.

But I’ve let it go, not too eager to be drained of my vital juices, just for the thrill of flying up their plastic freeways like a lame-duck. The danger is enough to put me off. I remembered the time, long ago, when I was zooming out of Nimbin to go to a hillbilly dance in some community hall. Sylvia had gone ahead of me in her car, loaded with friends. She’d found the hall then came out onto the rise of the road, with her gang, to try to wave me down because I didn’t know where I was going.

I was speeding into the dark, then suddenly there she was, with about six friends, in my path, lit up by my headlights, waving her arms, and I was heading straight into the bunch of them. I braked and spun the steering wheel and did a mad swerve, careering around them, almost out of control, missing them by a few inches, spinning round and round, like something out of a speedway movie. Thank nogod I didn’t hit them but it was mighty fucking close. Fuuuccckkkkk!!!! Seven souls splattered like human skittles in a bowling alley of the damned. I still shudder at the memory.

Fuck it, I’m over driving. I prefer my pushbike, dangerous to speed in the city traffic, yes, but at least I’m not up for killing anybody, just myself.

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.