Monday, September 11, 2006

This Time I Really Mean It

This time I am committed to keeping my resolution, and making sure my husband keeps his. I will not even honk the horn at another driver, and I will never make faces, yell anything or make certain gestures including the avian salute. Life’s too short, and too full of other dangers, to bring another one on myself for a moment of anger or a temporary sense of satisfaction.

Orlando became one of the murder capitals of the U.S. this year. A local police official said that if we didn’t have such a top-notch regional trauma center, it would have been even worse, because the total number of shootings is way up too. Then, to add insult to injury, the August issue of Men’s Health magazine named Orlando the Angriest City in America, based on the amount of high blood pressure, traffic congestion, workplace violence, speeding tickets and aggravated assaults.

Unless you live in Orlando (or in Oz), you probably can’t comprehend the shock, the dismay, the (dare I say it?) outrage these two events caused. First of all, our prideful city motto is the “City Beautiful.” That had already taken a hit with the 2004 parade of ’canes, led by Charley. Once again, unless you live here, you probably had no idea how badly hit this city was by Charley, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne. If negative news of the impact on Orlando crept out to the world, what would happen to the already-staggered tourism industry? So, a gentle veil was drawn over Orlando. Public officials, news organizations, the tourism industry, and, of course, the 3,000 pound gorillas around here, the theme parks and their King Kong, Disney, all joined hands and did the minimize, minimize, minimize dance.

We were scheduled to move here in October 2004. When Hurricane Charley hit in late August, I combed every source I could find for information on what had happened to Orlando. Everything I saw and read (and there wasn’t that much of it) said that Orlando was fine, damage was minimal. I was sort of puzzled since the path showed the storm passing right over Orlando at the last minute, but, hey, it was all new to me. Imagine my shock when I arrived on a house hunting expedition in mid-September. Huge twisted piles of trees and limbs were everywhere. Some streets weren’t navigable. There were no commercial signs anywhere—just empty frames or downed posts on every restaurant, gas station, store and hotel. Large buildings had damage to awnings, siding, and roofs. It was a blue tarp jungle in the neighborhoods. There was evidence of flooding everywhere. The house we finally rented had its lawn scoured half off from the raging torrents. There was not a leaf on a tree anywhere. People told us stories of having no power for days.

So, how does one reconcile a battered but unbowed City Beautiful with the Angriest City in America and with near daily stories of shootings and other killings: of tourists, of innocent moms in upscale neighborhoods, of people “just like us?” Long-time Orlandians and the rare natives blame it on the huge population influx, nearly half a million people during the 90s and the same projected for the stretch from 2000 to 2013. Newcomers blame it on the oddness of Florida, a sort of land’s end effect in which every weirdo and serial killer seems to end up here. Public officials, remembering the terrible tourist slump in South Florida when people with rental cars were being targeted by thieves and killers, rushed to put anti-crime measures into place and downplay any danger to tourists. Residents, on the other hand, are scared.

On Sunday afternoon, we were returning from an outing and stopped to get gas in Winter Park, a lovely little, tony town that fiercely maintains its separate identity, even as Orlando has flowed almost completely around it like an amoeba. We pulled out of the gas station into the left turn lane. The light was green and there was a green arrow, but the large, red truck with the big tires in front of us continued to just sit at the green light. My husband tapped the horn. No response, the truck did not move. Fearing we would miss the light, my husband—with my urging, I freely admit—gave a second, healthy blast on the horn. The truck turned, and we turned, and as we were turning, the driver of the truck’s hand emerged from the truck window in the universal symbol of disdain. My usually mild-mannered husband returned the gesture.

I began saying heatedly, “Why did you do that? I thought we agreed we weren’t going to do that these days when people could have guns in their cars?” (I felt a mild twinge of guilt as I said this for we both knew that I had also done it since we had said that we wouldn’t.) We fell silent quickly, though, because the huge red truck was driving an ominous 20 miles an hour in front of us down the 35-mile-per-hour major arterial. “Stay back,” I said anxiously, even though he already was staying well back. With some trepidation, we decided to move into the left lane. As we accelerated, the truck whipped lightning fast into the left lane in front of us and slowed back down. My husband signaled and moved back into the right lane. The truck sped back into the lane in front of us, and then slowed back down.

We were in one of the main shopping districts in broad daylight with dozens of cars around, but we were terrified. My husband slowed further to let a little more distance open between us and the truck as we discussed what to do. There was no one immediately behind us so at the next small intersection after the truck had passed through, my husband screeched a right turn at the last second without signaling. He sped up and we started to weave through the streets. I kept a lookout for the truck, and we both desperately hoped all the streets would go through. Like Topsy, Winter Park has “just growed,” and that has resulted in some odd little dead-end warrens of streets. Thank goodness, the truck continued on its way, its testosterone-laden young male occupants no doubt laughing at scaring us.

We pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store we had planned to stop at, and we were both shaking. I saw a red truck parked under a tree at the furthest part of the lot from the store door and felt a new spike of adrenaline. “There he is,” I shouted. “That’s not the same truck,” my husband said slightly contemptuously. “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” And just like that, it was over.

Until, that is, I saw tonight’s news. A young man was driving on the Interstate at our very own neighborhood exit early Saturday morning. A white van or SUV pulled right in front of him, cutting him off. He honked his horn. The passenger of the other vehicle leaned out the window and threw his soft drink, container and all, onto the young man’s windshield. He swerved in reaction, lost control of his car, and hit the guardrail while the white vehicle sped off. Sitting there, shaken, he saw blood on his arm and dazedly thought he must have hit it on the door during the impact. It was only when he got to the hospital that he and the medical personnel realized he had been shot. The bullet grazed the back of his arm and lodged just under the skin on the inside of his arm above the elbow. Later, when he saw the bullet hole in his car door, he realized that the bullet had missed his heart by inches. He almost died because he honked his car horn—justifiably.

That could have been us. Our incident occurred only a few hours later and a couple of miles away. Yes, it’s angry here, and a lot of people are armed in this place, which has a climate of gun-friendly laws.

So, I don’t plan to use my horn again, and I am sure that, this time, the resolution to display no anger on the road, no matter what the provocation, will stick. I have been scared straight.

Stay calm and stay safe out there, everyone.

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