In the locker room of the gym yesterday, three men changing their clothes near to me were talking about incidents of road rage and random anger they had witnessed. They were upset about how the mood on the street had changed since the last election. I could easily relate to the discussion and was relieved they seemed to be on “my side” of the political divide.
But the remarkable thing was that on previous days I had felt suspicious of two of the three men. They had looked angry to me, aggressive, not on my side at all. Taking sides means sides to stay away from.
When politics gets as divisive as it is now, it reaches into almost every aspect of our lives. It’s not just online and newspapers, television, and radio. It is on the street, in the gym, work, and travel. We don’t know from what side of the borderline of hate and division the driver of the car next to us might be or the person on the check out line behind us—or the policeman standing at the street corner. Hate and suspicion are contagious. This is one reason the level of anxiety and depression amongst college and k-12 students is at all-time highs.
And this is obviously not the first time the U. S. has been so divided. Think of the Civil War, the revolution, the suffrage, civil rights, and anti-war movements, etc. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s. Back then I was under the illusion I could discern sides by looking at the length of hair, the clothing, the age, and facial expression. All such illusions are shattered now, although sloganed t-shirts and confederate or Nazis flags speak all too clearly.
In December 1970, after vacationing in Berkeley, California, I had to return home to New York City. I didn’t have much money so I arranged for a drive-away car. It was easy to get such cars back then. In exchange for driving someone’s vehicle to their home for them, I could receive free transportation. An Englishman I had met in a theatre workshop, who I will call Adam, was going to share the ride with me.
Adam had met a woman, Nancy, and she wanted to go east with us. That was fine with me. What wasn’t fine was that Adam had developed a drug dependency. He had been on speed and other drugs for weeks.
I told him we could only travel together if he stopped using. No drugs were allowed in the car. He agreed.
We left a few days after our talk. I started the driving. It was winter and a storm was forecast for that night so we had to get across the Rockies before the snow began. We drove south towards LA before turning east.
After a few hours, Adam said there was a rattle in the underside of the car. He thought it was the axle and feared it could fall off. Since he had worked as a mechanic for a few years, we became worried, even though neither Nancy nor I could hear the sound and it was a relatively new car.
A few minutes later he explained the reason for the loose axle, and Nancy and I became even more worried—but not about the car. Adam said we were getting too close to LA. There was a witch in LA who hated him and she was sabotaging the car. We had to change our route. Since we were already heading east, I told him we would soon be free of her influence.
It was clear his mental state was rapidly deteriorating. He denied he had taken any more drugs, but his denial was not believable. I kept the keys with me each time we stopped for a rest. Nancy did not have a license so I did all the driving. The mental image of falling snow and the sight of Adam suffering in the back seat made me press harder on the gas.
When we hit the Rockies, the sun set and the snow began. Adam was getting more and more irrational and I was too tired to drive any longer. We pulled into a scenic overlook, except the only scenery visible were snowflakes falling on the night. I told everyone to get out of the car. I went to the trunk, opened it, and pulled out Adam’s backpack. Inside the backpack was a large bag filled with little white pills.
I yelled at Adam, demanding to know how he could lie to me like he did. He started crying. He was sorry. He was so sorry. I ripped open the bag and threw all the pills over the side of the mountain. They looked like dense snowflakes falling in the storm. We then returned to the car and fell asleep.
I awoke a few hours later. It was still dark and the road was covered in snow. I started the car and pulled onto the road. The headlights carved a tunnel into the darkness. The only way to know where to go was to slowly, blindly follow the tracks of the car barely visible in front of us. Eventually, the snow stopped, the sun rose, and the mountain ended.
East of the Rockies, I pulled into a gas station that also had a restaurant and a few stores. The attendant came out to pump the gas. There were no self-service pumps back then. He took one angry look at me and said, “You don’t belong here” and other choice words. Adam and Nancy went into the restaurant to get some food, oblivious to the attendant’s comments.
My hair back then was several inches long, curly, and stood proudly in the air. My beard was a little unkempt after driving for almost two days without shaving. I looked very much like a classic hippie. The attendant was white with short hair, in his fifties.
He went inside the gas station. Soon afterward, a young woman, a waitress from the restaurant, came out and approached me. She said I should get my friends and leave quickly. The attendant had called the local gun club and they were coming to get us.
The attendant came out, pulled out the gas hose, and demanded money. I paid him. A Chevy pick-up pulled into the gas station, with two men inside and two rifles in the rack in the rear window. They drove around in the back of the station, where there was a gun shop. The waitress and I hurried inside.
Adam and Nancy were at a table, eating. I told them we had to leave, immediately, but Adam refused to get up. He insisted I explain why. I told him about the attendant, the waitress, the pick-up truck, and the men coming to shoot us. We had to go, now.
Adam said no. We could not leave. We had to fight.
Remember, he was an actor with a trained voice, one more disciplined than my own. And he was suffering from a drug-induced mental breakdown.
He climbed up on the table. And in a voice both English-accented and loud, he started reciting the ending of Churchill’s address to the House of Commons from June 1940, the speech that inspired his nation to fight the Nazis. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…”
Nancy and I pulled Adam off the table and out the door. Three men with rifles followed after us.
Just as we opened the car doors, two cars, state troopers, pulled into the gas station. I didn’t know if they were there to join in the assault against us or to save us. I rushed into the front seat as quickly as possible and started the car, but one of the state policemen turned in front of our car and yelled out the window, “Follow me.”
We followed him out of the station, one police car in front and one behind. They led us, safely, to the highway. They led us for the next twenty miles or so before they pulled off at an exit. Only then did my breathing become almost normal. However, in a way, I wished they were still with us.
And for days afterwards, in my mind, I thanked the waitress who had both warned us and called the state troopers. Three days later, we did make it safely back to New York. Adam did get some help with his drug addiction.
So, who do we want to be? Someone who uses hate to divide and kill? Or someone who cares enough to help save the lives of strangers even in defiance of neighbors? Do we want a community weakened by suspicion or one strengthened by a sense of shared humanity? This is our choice.