I was street-crossing recently when an ancient road hog — the kind Travolta would approve of — made a swift right turn and roared up the avenue, its driver lighting a cigarette, unconcerned with, or oblivious to, the spot where I had been standing five seconds before. My near-death put me in mind of the day when I was almost eaten by the road. I was five years old and in my father’s Lincoln Town Car. This was before air bags and child seats, before people in Texas cared about seat belts. Riding shotgun, I looked to the right to see a door lever, fountain-penny shiny, reflecting the soft question mark of my mother’s mouth, which she showed me in full as I opened the door.
I jerked the lever thinking Jolly Ranchers or something would fall out of the sun visor, some ridiculous notion granted to a child by a James Bond film. I remember the door cracking open onto another world: a thrash of weeds and tall grass, the song of overhead electric wires, a race of asphalt. The door ajar was an animal’s mouth, tires and road the teeth that would chew me to bits then swallow me down. I remember the sensation of falling, my readiness to hit skinning pavement. Fortunately, my mother slammed on the brakes, and the door squeezed me in an embrace before I could fall out.
From that moment on, I’ve been mindful of cars, as I am of any wild thing. I treat them as unpredictable, mesmerizing man-eaters. Now, at thirty-three, I hold car culture to be an ostentation of Americana, an aggressive, cocky, insecure announcement of masculinity. I’m not alone in this, but the piston-whipping phalluses set me on a particular edge because I’m a commuter-biker-walker here in Dallas, a rare thing, like an endangered bird. Here, cars prowl the streets, growling in revving ravenousness.
But there’s something else: When I watch a no-rate movie like The Last Stand (Schwarzenegger’s post-gubernatorial “he’s still got it” flick) and see a steroided Corvette outpace a helicopter, I feel a mild and unaccountable sense of paranoia. As if the car could burst through the screen and lay me out in my living room. As if I were lost in an urban jungle with metal predators of our own making coming for me.
Before 1900, my ancestors never faced natural selection via car. A century ago pedestrians ruled the roads. Then, in 1896, an aging Londoner named Bridget Driscoll stepped off a curb in front of a gas-powered Anglo-French car. The car was cruising at a cool four miles per hour. Driscoll, who was described as “bewildered,” concreted in her shoes and the car ran right over her, thus causing the world’s first motor vehicular slaughter. Later, when Henry Ford scattered his Model Ts, with a top speed of forty-five miles per hour, around the globe, the carnage began. In 1925, two thirds of deaths in cities with over 25,000 residents were from motor vehicles, and 1,054 of those dead were children.
Lately, I’ve been reading David Quammen’s book Monster of God, which is about cultures that live near the Gir lion, the Nile crocodile, and the Siberian tiger. These predator-accustomed people put me in mind of my own culture and our acceptance of the death rate by car. In 2013, the number of American pedestrians killed by vehicles — 4,735 — is forty times the number of people killed by tigers worldwide and two-thousand times more than the number of people killed by bears in the United States that same year.
“Their ambivalence toward the [predator] blended nonchalance with contempt,” Quammen writes of the people living among animals that sometimes make them prey. The predators represented all of life’s uncertainties and were “basically the handiwork of the same spirit, who was devilish or compassionate according to his whim.” I think the emblem of American life’s ephemerality is the car crash. A fatal collision is an everyday phenomenon, the kind of death, it seems, that is always expected. Death by tiger, by shark, by Florida alligator — these seem sensational only because most of us don’t live near flesh-eating monsters anymore and aren’t used to imagining ourselves crunched between the vise grip of jaws.
Cars even sound like animals — droning, growling, purring, scrapping, rumbling, digesting gasoline. They have “horses” under the hood, “eyes” on their grill, sometimes “fins” and “wings.” They are said to “fly,” “eat pavement,” and “prowl the streets.” We even have “monster” trucks and “death” cars. They’ve become beasts, of course, because many of us want them to be. One theory about why we watch so many monster movies is that, removed from the jungle, not having something stalking us in the night feels unnatural. Cars make us feel more like the prey we are.
At the same time we long to be predators— and want to be monsters. In the latest Godzilla movie, the monster is the protagonist. King Kong movies show remarkable empathy toward their creatures. And who wouldn’t want to be the Incredible Hulk, able to smash apart tanks and bound as high as fighter jets?
We love the part of our kitten that’s really a panther. People purchase bears, lions, and crocodiles as if they were shopping for Lamborghinis and Ford F-350s. There are more tigers in my home state of Texas than in the rest of the world. We want very much to be near these beasts, to possess them, because they thrill us with their power. I think they give us hope that we can reach past our skins and become more like the animals we once were.