September 30, 2007

Rarely have I been called "Ma'am" or "Madam" where an argument doesn't follow. Generally it's used to signify impatience by a stranger at the other end of the phone who has no intention of being helpful. No matter how angry or frustrated I become, the voice remains monotone. Attaching a mechanical "Ma'am" gives the illusion of civility.

I had to drive while I was in LA recently, and every time I sat at the wheel I could feel myself getting older. Apart from the glaring sun and the monstrous Hummers, there are too many signs. People shouldn't be expected to read and drive and change lanes and find exits on highways that have 10 lanes - there's too much going on. Times like these remind me that I'm not made for this world.

Naturally, I had an accident. I've always thought the word "accident" is a bit understated for what can happen to someone in a car. The way "disgruntled" seems to be the wrong word to describe postal workers who go on a rampage and shoot up the post office. I think of an accident as doing something stupid, like spilling coffee on the floor. It does not involve potential death.

But this time, accident was the perfect word. I was on my way to a meeting and the instructions directed me to an underground car park. I followed the sign and drove down the steep ramp. Midway I noticed another sign that said: "Residents only". Unable to turn around, when I got to the barrier at the bottom I pressed the intercom button for the attendant. "May I help you, Ma'am?" Trouble was imminent. "Yes," I replied. "Can you raise the barrier so I can turn around, I'm in the wrong place." The voice responded: "Sorry, Ma'am. I can't help you without ID." I asked how I was supposed to turn around. Silence. "It's not safe to back up." I pleaded. Silence.

Eventually I accepted that she wasn't going to raise the barrier. I would have to drive through it or reverse up the hill around a blind bend onto the road and risk getting killed.

I'm not really a risk-taker. And backing up a steep hill onto a busy road? It doesn't get much riskier than that. I might as well have been wearing a blindfold too because I couldn't see anything - right up to the point when I hit the concrete barrier. Immediately, I switched from reverse to drive and stepped on the gas, but the car wouldn't move. I could hear screeching and scraping sounds, but as I wasn't hurt, how bad could it be? Turns out, pretty bad. So bad, I couldn't open the door.

Later, my friend Julie was outraged when I told her about it. "You should have taken her name and said you were going to sue them for endangering your life. Or you should have said your best friend was Michael Moore."

Apparently, that's her new weapon. It's more effective than a lawsuit. She was having a problem with her cable-TV company when she told them Michael Moore was her best friend - they got so scared they not only fixed her problem but took $100 off her bill.

There's a reason I don't drive. It's too much responsibility. But also, there are people who belong at the wheel - confident that they will get to their destination safely. And then there are people like me. People who belong in a taxi. The only "Ma'am" I don't mind is when it follows: "Where to?"