June 13, 2000

Scary Old Man

Scary Old Man "The Twilight Zone" scared America silly in its heyday, primarily, if you look closely, with only slightly distorted images of ourselves, of the kind of people official, approved culture had made us, and of the kind of place America had become during the extended post-second world war boom. It offered the same kind of silly terror once upon a time available nearly everywhere in carnival funhouse mirrors: within the human grotesque one is invited to confront and recognize oneself as--horrors!--abnormal. 

These days, the Jerry Springer show and its like exploit much the same principle, presenting for our horror freakshow images of America, the people we have officially become and the fearful cultural landscape we inhabit in this, our current, post-cold war boom. But, unlike "The Twilight Zone," the latest TV carnival mirrors systematically subtract love. They free us and encourage us to hate, to boo and hiss in response to that creepy, skin-crawling feeling of self-recognition among the American grotesques paraded before us. Instead of preaching below the surface, as did "The Twilight Zone," that there is only one America, one human race, one common fate to which we, setting aside our artificially induced terror of difference, ought to be drawn in human compassion, Jerry Springer and company drive us further apart or, at best, into the legioned arms of  professional psychotherapy.

Whether or to what extent "The Jerry Springer Show" is in tune with America or America is being tuned by "The Jerry Springer Show," I'll leave for you to consider as I present this little, "real-life" carnival mirror from one of America's most telling of places, the California freeway. Needless to say, I ran across this bone-chilling tale the other day on America's other most telling of places, the information superhighway. It's written by an obviously nice, intelligent, young college woman, and is all the more scary for that: 

2000-06-12 18:45:38

Things are always interesting when I'm around. Serious. A half hour into the two hour drive to Oakland the craziness started. I went to point at something and a middle-aged man with a "going to molest and kill you" look thought I was pointing at him and got all smiley at me. For the next hour we kept randomly seeing him in the traffic. He'd drive by us smiling and we'd all scream. At one point he drove by with his hand up to his window making a peace sign. I'm still not quite sure what that was all about.

While all that was going on the three 13-year-olds who were with us saw a car with a couple guys and proceeded to wave and smile at them. The guys looked relatively young, 16 or 17, so we let the girls have some fun and try and talk to them. But since I was in the front passenger seat I was the one who had to try and talk to these guys while driving 65 mph. Very difficult to do, but we managed to give them Sarah's cell phone number. They called later and Katie talked to them and made arrangements to contact them today or something. Turns out they were 21 and 18. Oh well, not like we're going to arrange for them to go out or anything, and neither Sarah or I were interested.

I saw an amazingly cute guy in a blue car later who I got the attention of. The girls were all screaming and getting excited but Sarah and I calmed them down and instructed them that it was not the appropriate way to go about getting a guy. Unfortunately we lost the cute guy (and the scary old guy) when someone rear-ended us. We had to pull off and exchange information and all that. Didn't look like any damage and Sarah's car was going in for work from her last accident today anyway, but it still sucked.

I dread to comment, but I must confess that I find this hysterically funny. Yes, by now, you've probably guessed that, even as a kid, I laughed all the way through "The Twilight Zone." So did my parents. And I thank them now for the healthy example: the truth too horrible to be believed must be laughed at; named with terrible glee, with heartfelt joy that one is at least sufficiently free to recognize it for what it is rather than live and die comfortably deceived.

The most purely comic part of this contemporary freeway tale is Sarah and our narrator attempting to calm down the adolescent trio in the backseat with the advice of an elder, infinitely more experienced sister about "the appropriate way to go about getting a guy." This after leaning out the window exchanging cell phone numbers at 65 mph with one car of guys and flirting with yet another equally anonymous but "amazingly cute guy in a blue car." I'm sure the experience left an indelible impression on the backseat girls, just as I'm sure whatever passed for advice flew right out the window, along with Sarah's number. 

Yes, of course it was all silly, safe, harmless fun on the way to an NSYNC concert...excepting, of course, the likely reason they were rear-ended. And there's nothing more to be made of the story, unless you happen to be old enough to see a bit of yourself and your old friends in the funhouse mirror: "the scary old guy."

For guys, like myself, now over forty, the most hysterical, Twilight Zone part of the story is not that this car full of "girls" could enjoy creeping themselves out and screaming at the realization that a middle-aged stranger might smile and find them attractive. The most terrifying, funny part is the last line of our narrator's account of that incident: "I'm still not quite sure what that was all about." Now that, the divide of naked incomprehension it implies, is scary, really scary, because it is so much America, today.

Objectively, it's quite obvious "what that was all about." More than likely, unless you subscribe to America's talk show image of the entire middle-aged male population, this car full of girls' encounter with the "scary old man" was the most innocent, decently human thing that happened to them on the freeway that night. Just imagine, for suitable contrast, the testosterone tweaking thoughts pumping uncontrollably up and down the spines (forget the brains) of the young guys racing alongside--true romance, dear to every young girl's heart. Based on what I can vaguely recall and still see of the typical 18-21 year old mental world within a world, they were lucky to be rear-ended only by another car. Certainly they got off easier in fact than in the minds and conversation of the young guys lost somewhere down the road. 

Yet it was the older face, at first absorbed in life's many other, more complicated thoughts, that appeared to wear the media-fanned "going to molest and kill you" look in these young women's eyes. And it's nothing but creepy, with a surreptitious bit of superior, hateful, Springeresque pity on their part, when he goes "all smiley" on them. 

For that sorry, middle-aged man, however, the whole extended, chance freeway encounter with these young women most likely just got sillier and sillier as it went on and on--it's simply and absurdly human to feel so young and so old at the same time--until finally he could think of nothing else but to smile and flash a now meaningless sign of community and togetherness: peace brother, peace sister. No doubt, he hasn't had much occasion to do that in the last thirty years. "Da, da, da, da, da-da, Hope I die before I get old...."

As for myself, a member of the all but forgotten Sex Pistols generation, I'm too young to have ever flashed a peace sign in earnest to anyone, let alone to a car full of silly young women, but I understand my "elders" well enough to be joined to them by common human sympathy. And so I like to think this particular scary old man from the sixties went to bed sadly happy that night, and dreamed not of our young women breezing down the Y2K superhighway of life, but of other young women, long ago and far away, in another and increasingly distant century.

And now I have to go and cry a bit. Because I remember them too....and America as it ought to have been.


Unsentimental footnote: Of course, you reap what you sow. It was the sixties generation that first mistook "peace, love, and understanding" to apply only to those more or less the same age. Advertisers have been exploiting that mistake ever since.

Posted by rri

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