by Carlos Cunha
These are gestures against absence that, pathetically, seem to know they will soon be gone themselves.
ONCE, STUCK ON THE shoulder of a freeway in a loaner car that had run out of gas, I was less conscious of the sounds of internal combustion engines firing in the other vehicles speeding by, and more attuned to the din of violent buffeting, the slashing displacement of air, and to tires rubbing hotly on asphalt. I could easily imagine that the age of the electric car was already upon us—the busy modern daytime invaded by the quiet of the night.
The engineers of modern transportation keep aiming for quieter vehicles, quieter road surfaces, quieter tires, pointing towards a time when traffic will pass by with only a murmur, a sort of phantom, akin to a ghost train.
But there is already a ghost that haunts traffic—the phantom accident.
One of the great mysteries of traffic flow theory—one that compels the theorists to stoop to fashionable, all-purpose (but ultimately unsatisfying) explanations like the butterfly effect—is the cause of sudden phase changes, how traffic can suddenly go from being free-flowing and gas-like to entering a stop-and-go particle phase. Often, we suppose an accident to be the culprit, an accident that is literally obstructing the road or simply causing motorists to slow down and rubberneck. But most traffic jams are not so easily or reasonably explained. Jams dissolve without us having spotted any sign of the expected accident—neither a wrecked car, nor the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, nor a dented or broken-through safety rail, nor a dusting of shattered glass. We spot nothing at all because a ghost is invisible; and it is apparently to a ghost that traffic flow theorists attribute many bottlenecks—to what they call the phantom traffic jam.1
It is a term that appeals to the imagination. It is tempting to take it literally. We might find ourselves, for instance, associating it with those unnervingly spooky roadside memorials erected for the victims of real accidents and sometimes serving as the cause of more, because they are known to disrupt traffic, as if to prolong, through days and weeks and months, that which the original accident caused, as if to deploy a phantom of that accident again and again and again, and thereby perhaps enforce respect for the memory of the deceased. The slowing down of the traffic caused by the memorial ensures that you see the memorial and spare a thought for its reason for being, for whoever perished and how.
That the memorial might, in its disruptiveness, even engender another accident could not be a conscious hope of its builders, but it might be a subconscious one. After all, the initiators of such memorials have to be aware that their handiwork does often create a traffic hazard and that such memorials have, for just that reason, been prohibited in many areas. The hazardousness may, for some, only add to the appeal of constructions that in other ways already constitute a form of vandalism, being a three-dimensional, sculptural form of graffiti, spontaneous, slapdash, juvenile expressions of sentiment made out of everyday and often juvenile junk: a garbage heap of toys, drink containers, lighters and other plastic, paper and tin bric-a-brac that either the mourners associate with the deceased or that mean something to the mourners themselves and are presented as an offering to the deceased, albeit a playground sort of offering. These are rowdy toy memorials, and as such poignantly, if unconsciously, representative of just how young the deceased was, how too-soon dead. Also, as toy memorials they are meant to have no more gravity than toys do and to be no less fleeting.
No doubt these memorials originate in a desire to see a deceased friend or acquaintance for the last time, although of course the mourners have to content themselves with visits to the spot where he or she was alive for the last time, their point of exit from the world. And the visitors mark the occasion of their visit by leaving something there, to represent them even after they leave, to be present even when they are absent, representing not only them but presence itself. And the more such objects pile up in a memorial, the more presence is represented, until it looks as if the mourners were trying, with the sheer quantity of their presence-representing junk, to counter or even reverse the absence of the mourned, to reconstitute him or her. At the site of an irreversible absence, they belatedly try to create an enduring, round-the-clock presence. But, of course, they know that such a transaction is futile, hence the pitiable flimsiness of their memorials, their being made of mere junk. These are gestures against absence that, pathetically, seem to know they will soon be gone themselves.
The roadside memorial, though it is sometimes built up around a makeshift cross (often white, as if in mimicry of road markings) and may bear other kitsch symbols of pop Christianity, and though it may have at least a superstitious value for some, perhaps owes more to the social than to the religious instinct. Each bit of sentimental or superstitious junk in it has been left there as a calling card which also serves as a membership card, making whoever has contributed to it at least feel that he or she belonged to that particular person’s social circle, perhaps gaining their entry to that circle only through their mourning of the person’s death, so that the circle continues to grow after the death, as if the dead were still alive and improving, becoming worthier of appreciation, worthy of more friends. At the same time, the mourners find or firm up an identity in mourning, in the makeshift death-cult which is what that widening social circle really is. And their memorials can get out of hand, become monstrous in size and lurid elaboration, after which point they are in effect less about the deceased than they are about the death cult itself, about how it has found a way not only to endure but to burgeon, like some expanding storm system, albeit one whose form of precipitation is a confetti of junk: dolls, toy instruments, cigarette lighters, guitar picks, carnival snapshots in frames, empty bottles, sports paraphernalia, brushes or combs, and so on.
No doubt those who place such objects in a roadside memorial feel compelled by curiosity and duty to drive by again and see if the memorial is still there, if they can still see their own contributions to it. Perhaps they stop to adjust or replace them.
In any case, endure these roadside memorials can, and their endurance—given that they are made of junk left out in the open, by the side of the road—often begin to seem miraculous, turning the memorial as if into an object of true religious value, which makes it seem worth preserving, further ensuring its endurance.
YET, AS SPOOKY AS roadside memorials are, they are not really the cause of the phantom accident, a term which, more creatively, we might allow to make us imagine our roads as not only physical but spiritual conduits, haunted by accidents past, future or merely potential. In other words, every time we are inexplicably tied up in sludge traffic, we might perversely console ourselves a little with the idea that something even more extraordinary than a real accident has occurred: at some point down the road, the past, the future or a parallel present, wrenched out of its own track by unspeakable violence, has somehow intruded on the flow of the present, causing in it a rippling, a buckling, a warping that soon brings it to a halt altogether.
Of course, that is not what the traffic researchers have in mind when they employ the term. Their phantom accident is a phenomenon whose cause or causes are elusive, yes, but by no means supernatural. Often it has to do with a sudden burst in the number of cars trying to enter from an on-ramp. The slowdown caused by that will very quickly spread up and down the highway, persisting sometimes for several hours, long after the ramp has cleared, in part because, the experts say, drivers get lulled into a stop-and-start rhythm and will not accelerate and get out of it when they should.
The phantom accident can even be caused by nothing more than a single one of those drivers, one whose excessive braking, hesitancy, slowing down, ill-timed lane change during peak drive-time served to put him out of sync, his disruptive actions causing a kink in the already dense flow which, quickly multiplied and magnified according to the processes speculated upon by chaos theorists, soon will have slowed all lanes to a sluggish pace, perhaps even brought them to a complete stop for a while—the snarl possibly remaining in place even once the offending driver is already safely home and ensconced in front of his television with his dinner, watching a report on (and congratulating himself on having missed) the traffic tie-up he unwittingly caused.
A lot of traffic congestion is caused by only five to ten percent of drivers, researchers have found. This being the case, one solution to contemporary traffic ills may lie not in futuristically smart traffic control devices, smart cars and smart road design so much as in smarter drivers. It is possible that a higher average driving IQ can be obtained, perhaps by putting a much greater emphasis on the responsibility that every driver should have not only to drive safely and courteously but, perhaps more importantly, to drive smartly, with expertise, with alacrity, with dispatch, with an eye on not disrupting the all-important traffic flow. Every driver should have to bring to the road more than rudimentary car-operating skills; he or she should have to have some of the talent, of the coordination, rhythm, timing, which is required of someone on a dance floor or sports field.
But not only is this not emphasized very much—or even less than it was at the outset of the motoring age, more than a century ago—it is barely even acknowledged, not only being entirely absent from driver training practices but, so far as I know, having not even been researched and studied so that it might be imparted through teaching, so that we might instruct learning drivers on how, say, to avoid getting caught in, or contrive to get out of, the clusters of traffic that can grow into jams; on how and at what point to merge onto a freeway so as not to bring a lane to a halt or otherwise cause a phase change in the flow; on how to maintain a consistent speed when traffic is thick (and prone to disruption) rather than speeding up every time a little space opens up, only to quickly come to a complete halt again; on how to judge the speed of oncoming traffic at an intersection so as not to wait too long and cause traffic to back up behind you; on how not to fear the right-on-red turn and dawdle indecisively as to whether to take it. . . .
We have come a long way since the dawn of the motoring era, when the only drivers on the road were highly knowledgeable uniformed chauffeurs and motoring enthusiasts who could single-handedly repair the vehicle should it break down. The road has since become a lot more democratic, or even thoroughly democratic, barring no one, not the doddering old nor the physically incapacitated. To drive is now seen as so basic a right that no one can be denied it, perhaps, eventually, not even those who truly cannot drive. So that the notion of simply making drivers smarter is probably more utopian than the futuristic utopia of smart roads and cars that will in effect do our good driving for us and make both phantom and real accidents things of the past.
OF COURSE, SOMETIMES it is indeed an accident, and the rubbernecking to which it gives rise, that is responsible for a jam. And it is natural that rubbernecking should occur, because an accident is not only a spectacle, but one more profound than the dismissal of our curiosity with the contemptuous term rubbernecking would indicate. And the sirens and the flashing, unintentionally festive lights of emergency vehicles at the scene of an accident confirm it as a spectacle—a spectacle of the wrong. And the wrong is, by itself, spectacular enough, even if only by virtue of the fact that what has gone wrong is less commonplace than what is working as it is supposed to.
There is nothing much to see in traffic flowing as it is supposed to, in our speedy vehicles conveying us surely, safely and in a timely fashion from one point to another. But a disruption in that flow, usually because of an accident or a breakdown, because, in other words, of something having gone wrong, does present itself to us as a spectacle, one for which it seems worth slowing down. And are we not left dissatisfied when we fail to identify something wrong, when the cause of the disruption remains a mystery, when it may have been only one of those so-called phantom accidents? Even when a patch of roadwork is to blame for the disruption, do we not feel let down, and less forgiving of how much we were delayed and the annoyance it caused us? Are we not inclined to be critical of the roadwork, cynically dismissing it as probably unnecessary, a project undertaken to line the pockets of some contractor with corrupt influence over whatever authority ordered the work?
On the other hand, should there be an accident, or at least traces of one, we forgive practically all. We try to take in the spectacle or its remnants, or—should the accident have just occurred—avert our eyes from it so as not to have a disturbing image seared into our memories. One dreaded sign that the accident is still too fresh, so to speak, is that you were caught in the further disruption of traffic caused by emergency vehicles trying to make it through with their lights flashing and sirens screaming. I, for one, retain a childish dread of sirens. Whenever I hear one, I fill with apprehension, as though it were aimed directly at me, and always feel a subsidence of tension, as if I have just had a narrow escape, when the emergency vehicle goes past, unconcerned with me. But this may be an effect that a siren is intended to have. The siren, after all, is aimed at everyone because it is supposed to be heard by everyone in the emergency vehicle’s path—and this can be misinterpreted by the individual to mean that it is aimed specifically at him.
Whatever the case, we are moved, perhaps even awed, by the crash scene and drive on at least momentarily altered in mood and almost certainly more respectful of the machine we are operating, because we have just been reminded that its power, the speed of which it is capable, is also an extreme form of violence. At the scene of an accident, we find everyday speed translated into, exposed as, extraordinary violence. The accident offers us a picture, a sculpture, of the dark, violent side of speed: it is speed captured in the impact, frozen into damage—a phantom become a sculpture.
1A term employed by Dr. Denos Gazis, of General Motors, among other pioneers of traffic flow theory.
But there is already a ghost that haunts traffic—the phantom accident.
CARLOS CUNHA’s stories and essays have appeared in publications like The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Seattle Review. Born in the Azores, he grew up in South Africa and lives in Florida, where he works as a copyeditor.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
© 2016 The Indianola Review