It was a modest trip, just twenty miles from my suburban home to downtown Washington in my car. Georgetown Pike, despite its grandiose name, is a narrow, winding two-lane road, but it holds my fancy for it runs through pretty Virginia countryside. Without the possibility of lane change, the pace set by the slowest commuter, I can drive steadily if slowly and mull peaceful thoughts.
Then, suddenly, the serpentine coil of traffic stopped moving. Breakdown or accident, the drivers had nowhere to go. I rolled the window down, stretched my neck, but could see nothing of what lay ahead. The cars in the opposite lane stood still too, though I had seen no problem while coming.
I settled down for an indefinite wait. I looked at the stucco house, the pizza place, the evergreens, the stray dog. Then I looked at the man sitting in the car in the opposite lane.
With nothing better to do, I decided to give him a name. Not John Doe; he did not look like a John. From what I could see, he had a slightly swarthy complexion. He could be Hispanic. I settled on Juan Diaz. Short and simple, like my name.
Juan came, let us say, from Ecuador. I have never been there, but I knew a pleasant person, a photographer Maria, from there. An Ecuadorian, he came to the US as a young student and has been here – given how accustomed he seems to life here – twenty years, I guessed.
I decided to give him a family too. Foreign born he may be, but given his very American bearing, I chose a Caucasian wife. Ciara, from Tiperary, Ireland. Ah, since that is the name of a saint, it should please Juan’s mother. My mother passed away some years ago, but I still miss her; so I preferred to let Juan have his mother, 81, living with him. So thoughtful of him, for his father died some years ago, and his mother did not enjoy living solo in Quito.
Juan and Ciara have a son in college and a daughter in school. The daughter is the apple of his eye, but the son has recently started causing some worry. He is spending a lot of time with a couple of friends who seem rather too boisterous to Juan. Ciara is unconcerned and thinks it is a passing phase, but Juan has reservations. I have two daughters, but felt Juan might be more traditional and want a son as well as a daughter.
What does Juan do? He works in an office, like many of us. What office? I am not sure, and I don’t have to be sure. This being Washington, I am comfortable placing him in a middling government agency, that looks after, say, Ocean Depth Exploration Safety Standards. Quite possibly he is an experienced engineer to whom the profundities of a sea reveal their valued secrets.
When I sit in a car and drive – or even when I walk – all I pass by are objects: houses, trees, cars. Even the people who walk by or people who drive those cars. They are all objects who can stand aside or go in their lanes and let me proceed with my life, without creating a single hindrance. Let them stand in my way, create the slightest problem, and I would curse them, at least in my mind, wish them cast aside and wonder why life should clutter my way with such fools.
It is a small step from this to think of others as just bothersome or worse, schemers or scammers. It does not matter if they become homeless, get beaten by the police, or thrown like refuse, without legal help, into a pitiless prison.
As I sat in my car, unable to move, an ‘object’ in another car miraculously transformed into another human being, not very different from me. Inexplicably, scores of Juans and Ciaras, sitting in scores of cars took on a human aspect, with a whole train of history and memories, with parents and children, jobs and homes, achievements and failures, and also plans and hopes and a thousand dreams – all like me, all exactly like me. They seemed to start touching me with invisible fingers, letting me be a minuscule part of a giant human community.
Then an unseen cop blew a whistle, first one and then the other long queue started moving, and Juan moved quickly out of sight.
I restarted the car and went back to driving, among other cars and other objects.