John's World: I Used to Be Somebody

January 26, 2011 05:30 AM
John's World: I Used to Be Somebody

I have become invisible in my own community. My disappearance is below the radar of ordinary life, but remarkably effective—and all I did was change my vehicle.

In rural America, passing on the road is the equivalent of meeting in a hallway or those faintly awkward encounters in the men’s rest room. (Thanks a lot, Senator Craig.)

There is an expectation of ritualized etiquette and recognition. With our brains’ remarkable powers of pattern recognition, we can identify friend and foe from afar by their vehicle’s features or even, during the summer, a signature dust plume.

So we are ready to wave instinctively with appropriate goodwill not so much at people, but at cars and trucks we know. Not only that, but depending on how the vehicle is driven, we can differentiate between the many owners of indistinguishably muddy F-150s, for example. If it’s a blur, it must be Wayne; if it never displays a turn signal, it must be Bob.

The system works remarkably well, since even nearsighted acquaintances have a chance to respond in the two to three seconds available in passing. In fact, many of us often pause for a few moments after waving to sort through our data bank and recall who the driver was.

Who was that? But this system can break down, or at least produce an awkward confusion. People sometimes change their outer appearance without our knowledge: they trade cars.

So it was for me a few weeks ago, when on the spur of the moment I succumbed to rebates and other blandishments to part with Zippy the Car.

Zippy had been my ride for four years or so, and no short ride it was, either. Sporting 160,000 miles, this faithful companion had carried me all over the Midwest and on my weekly 400-mile commute to South Bend, Ind., to tape "U.S. Farm Report." (I always tell folks it’s like commuting 40 miles one-way all week—only you do it all at once.)

Such long use had firmly fixed our combined identity, much like old married couples whose names
become fused together, such as Danandwanda, Steveandjudy and Johnandjan.

As a result, trading cars was not just an outward makeover; it had some overtones of a breakup. Or worse, the suggestion that I am dallying with some "wheels on the side."

The new me. I had forgotten about this phenomenon. As I drove about in my new transport—a silver Equinox I’ve dubbed the Gray Lantern—I was puzzled by the cold nonresponse and head-whipping glares from passing neighbors as I waved greetings to them.

What had I done to warrant such shunning? Or, more to the point, what had they found out I had done?

Then it dawned on me that I was camouflaged, especially if my hat was worn a little lower or if I had my sweatshirt hoodie up (a surprisingly successful disguise).

For a while, there was the vicarious thrill of being present but effectively unnoticed, not unlike a choir director. But then uneasiness about how much of my identity is wrapped up in my vehicle gave me pause. Do my neighbors think of me as Dusty Black Vibe Guy? It certainly would explain the unprompted snickers when I arrive at community gatherings.

In an effort to advance the social sciences, I am tracking how long it takes for the new "me" to be accepted. Quite a while, it would seem.

It requires several encounters and some dangerous high-speed staring in traffic to reset the car-person identity in our minds.

My neighbor Greg traded pickups to a ubiquitous white something many months ago, and I still can’t identify him without painful concentration. In fact, I told him I have decided to just wait a few years until he gets something more memorable. My memory bank is already full of white half-tons. He will just have to settle for a half-hearted "who-the-heck" gesture in response to his wave.

As for me, I have decided to stop by and introduce the Gray Lantern to my fellow serfs to help speed the process. Until it is not forthcoming, you don’t realize how cheering it is to receive those tiny moments of identity validation. We really do want to go where everybody knows our name.

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