Peripatetic Postcards

I am Legend (Part 1)

. . . your mama used to say

My boy is gonna grow up and be

Some kind of leader some day . . .

But you're a legend in your own time

A hero in the footlights . . .

-- Carly Simon, Legend in Your Own Time

Do media influence us?

This is a question that has been debated for a couple of generations. It is one that, despite thousands of academic studies, directed at a variety of communication forms, has not yet been satisfactorily resolved.

Do media make us: more violent? More sexual? More prone to bend the truth? To seek out the gray in life? To disbelieve? To trust? To think in terms of permanence? Or evanescence?

Well, the jury is still out, as it has been since work on media effects began right after the second Great War. Yet, despite the inconclusive results, one thing that is certain (at least, if you ask me, based on my study and experience): media has been quite effective in getting in our heads, providing models of behavior, impelling us to respond by example under certain situations.

Such as?

Well, how about telling us what to do when we are being stalked by a crazed driver late at night on the open streets of our home towns?

Which is what happened to me a day or two ago.

It was after seeing I am Legend. A passable remake and a guaranteed squirm. On general principle, it is a difficult prospect to sustain audience interest when 65% of your movie follows one guy (and his dog) around deserted New York streets; not much is likely to happen (unless you count the stray lion and random zombie), but the writers and director insert enough surprises to keep viewers guessing. And tense. So, much so, that after the finale, viewers are in for a certain unavoidable emotional let-down back in the real world. Possibly even a free-fall into unabated frustration and desire for catharsis.

Which is my only explanation for what happened next.

Exiting the theater, back out on the sparsely-traveled blacktop, in the latest hours of today, soon to be tomorrow, brain benumbed from the cinematic experience, you get in the car, crank the ignition, and start driving on automatic pilot. Not giving anything beyond the movie a second thought. Things like:

  • if you have a cure for cancer, how does that lead to deadly susceptibility to rabies?

  • and if the protagonist thought he was alone in the world, who was he making that vaccine for?

  • and if the bridges into New York City were all destroyed, then how did the woman and the boy get to him by car?

  • and if you took the roads into another state, what is the likelihood that you could -- you know, without a map or beacon or CB radio -- locate a secret, sequestered community?

Okay, so there are a plethora of questions of keep your brain working against that good-ole suspension of disbelief.

And so, when you see an open space to your left, you don't give it a second thought. On impulse -- since your brain is occupied with more weighty matters -- you simply take it. Of course you take it. It is how you drive. Here, there, anywhere. The open space is to the quick. "First in time is first in right" -- one of the elementary principles they teach you in law school.

Except this time, after taking the space, you notice that the car behind you has begun to close the gap. What gap?

"My car is already there, pal. Where you heading? Like . . . inside my tailpipe?"

So, fine, the dude seems to want this space bad. So bad that you might as well give it to him. Hell, I'm flexible. And I've got an array of other ways to validate my ego.

But when I switch lanes, damned if the dude behind me doesn't follow suit! Oh, I get it, it's going to be one of these. There is space on my left shoulder, but this driver isn't going to be person enough to pull alongside and offer a size-up or a confrontational glare. He isn't going to roll the window down and call me out. (Or, in a civil world, see if I might offer up an apology). No, he's going to get on my ass and harass me. Like all anonymous harassers do: in safety, within the confines of his metal and plexiglas, without having to expose himself. From his place of weakness and insecurity. His cowardliness. His anger at not being able to experience efficacy in his own life.

If you want to get clinical about it, harassers are all chicken-shit.

And now the game is afoot. (And here is where the media comes in). We all have prefabricated models for these situations: the San Francisco street chase in Bullitt, the construction site sequence in the recent Casino Royale, and the flight scene in last year's The Shooter. In fact, if we've paid any attention, we have so many hundreds of models cramming our crania; we know how this drill is done. Put your body on auto-pilot, strip your brain down to the bare essentials of scanning the changing landscape, calculating possibilities, using what is at your disposal, and react. (Oh, and either outwit your quarry or else make sure you beat your opposition to a puny pulp!).

So, here is how that goes . . .

It begins by executing a severe turn about 30 clicks in excess of what that curve was designed to comfortably accommodate. Even so, the black, boxy car remains on my rear end. Say, this dude's motivated. I slow allatonce, forcing him to brake, then accelerate to keep him on edge. Let him know I'm on it, I know where he's coming from, and I'm not going to let him simply have his way. He picks up speed accordingly, in synchronic response.

Slowing once more, I abruptly slide diagonally into the narrow window between a taxi and Honda, which had been to my right; now in front of the Honda and alongside the taxi, I have the chaser lodged behind a cushion of cars. He darts laterally to get behind the Honda, hoping to execute a similar diagonal dip in front of the taxi. But I'm good. Maybe I am even legend! I slow enough to keep the Honda on my tail, but at the speed that locks the taxi in parallel space, along my left shoulder. Good thing the cab is cruising for a fare and doesn't seem to want to get anywhere quick. However, seeing the guy with the brights weaving behind him, trying to squeeze by, he registers his disapproval. He slows down accordingly, just to give the chaser grief.

Thanks, bud. What a temporary team we could be!

With a red light 15 meters up, I hit the accelerator and dart in front of the cab. And now, my pursuer is truly walled off. Acting like a caged rat, his frustration boils over: he immediately darts left, then right, trying to figure out a way to slither through an impenetrable metal gap.

Next up: Round 2.

When the light turns green I maintain a slow, steady pace, regulating the pack of two cars on my right shoulder and the taxi behind; then, with nothing in front of me for over 100 meters -- a clear shot -- I take off. Of course, I can't admit to speeding, but I am pushing the envelope. And the chaser, with his menacing orange-yellow brights ablaze, continues his see-saw motion behind both lines until he is finally able to break free. The guy is clearly a madman. By then, he is a good 75 meters in arrears -- but . . . gaining! So, I guess someone is speeding. But not to worry, the light ahead is just turning orange. I will be safe as soon as I'm through. I can take a side street once the pursuer is checked by the light. He won't ever be able to pick up the thread afterward!

Guess again, oh naive one. The asshole blows through the red and is soon hot on my tail again. So . . . okay . . . time for Plan B.

Which is? Uh . . . How exactly did that Bullitt scene go again? Or, maybe I could start flying from floor to floor, like in Casino Royale . . .

Spying a green arrow up ahead, now bleeding into orange, I veer into the turn lane. Another cab is sitting at a ninety degree angle to my right, waiting for his light to go green. If I keep going straight, that takes me away from the cabbie and into a darkened part of town, near the by-now dormant train station. What I need is a public place. Witnesses. So, on the fly, I keep turning right, executing what is fast becoming a two hundred-forty degree turn. Not as tightly as you'd have seen it in The Shooter, not as expert as my ego would have liked, but at least now I'm moving in the opposite direction . . . with the asshole on my tail! His car corners a little less elegantly -- obviously, he didn't buy his coupe from a position of money -- but he is trying his best to mimic my every maneuver. I veer in front of the surprised cabbie, taking his place at the front of the turn lane, and get through before on-coming traffic stalls forward progress.

This is all getting a little too dangerous -- and unnecessary -- for my tastes. Boy when the media take hold, they really get a firm grip!

Round 3 better bring this madness to an end.

It starts with the chaser planted behind the cabbie and they are both stopped for on-coming traffic. Even after he pulls in front of the now-enraged hack (who's blaring his horn), the chaser's got to pause long enough for three cars to clear. Now I'm back on the main drag where this entire nonsense began and I've got at least a good 50 meters on the jerk. . . but I'm suddenly boxed in. He's hard-charging and I have a red light staring me in the grill. I know he isn't going to pull alongside -- he may be tenacious, but I don't peg him for a guy who is going to drag me out of the car at gunpoint -- at least not yet. But, he might just decide not to slow down. You know: give my property a good "oops, did I do that to you? Sorry!" And then, having delivered me my comeuppance (for this entirely imagined slight), speed away in blissful anonymity.

Why give him the chance? No one coming in any of the three other directions -- and I just had a fantastic idea!

Jump the light and pull into that entrance . . . right there on the left. You know, the one that leads to the door that says: City Center Police Department.

This week I am back in Japan and I swear, every time I spend extended time here of late, I get the sense that we are witnessing a decline in civility. It could be the economy, or else the changing of the guard. The young folks feeling their oats, taking space, putting their stamp on a society that is aging before their eyes. "Why wait?" you can see them saying. "Why follow any of the old rules? That stuff is totally bogus."

And my response? Once I shake off the fact that the gloves have come off? Well, the only tapes I have to refer to -- the only models that could provide me guidance -- are, unfortunately, from Hollywood. Media versions of how to respond when pushed. And now I'm learning first-hand that it's not just a message that works over there. It seems to have made its way over the seas and is getting applied over here, too. Fortunately or not. And although it may not be how I would teach my kids how to comport themselves, it beats cowering in the darkened parking lot of a downtown police station.

Walking the beat around the lot is a cop, his navy blue uni blending into the darkness. His yellow-green reflector strips on his cap and arms and his shiny shield are what give him away. I see him just about the time I reckon that I've waited the chaser out. It's been a good 2 minutes since the light turned green. My pursuer knew well enough not to chase me into the PD parking lot. He might be skulking along the shoulder of the road, lying in wait; but I doubt it. The Central Post Office is over there. And a three-star hotel with parking attendants just across the wide boulevard. Either of those are suitable next stops in case he is truly hankering for a confrontation.

The cop peers over at my car as I turn on the ignition. Pulling out, I decide it might be best to talk to him. Just in case I end up a statistic tomorrow morning. A living record is a good thing to establish, especially with the authorities. That way, at least, I might have the last laugh, be it from the grave.

My window motors down and the whir draws him over. He stops a meter away and I say:

"Just stopped here because I was being followed by a strange person."

I want to say "deranged", but my Japanese isn't quite at that level. The cop seems to be of a different mind, though. He says:

"Wow! Your Japanese is great! How long you been living here?"

Excuse me? Did you hear what I just said???

"Um . . . about twenty years. But, did you hear me? A strange car was chasing me. Fast. All around the city. It was dangerous."

Maybe the cop is just trying to get a bead on what he's dealing with here. Determine precisely who is the strange one in this play. So he says:

Do you work locally?"

What IS with this guy? Are you hearing me, pal? Jeez. Forget the whole thing. Well, that is what I want to say, but I am still being considered a suspect, I suppose, so I have to play along. Just so that he knows I'm the righteous one, not the crackpot:

- Yeah. At the university.

- Oh, well, that explains it, then.

- Explains it?

- Yeah, why you speak Japanese so well.

This guy is a dingbat. Do they have pen and paper tests before they hand out these uniforms?

Whatever. Now satisfied that he's talking to the right guy -- the one he is being paid to protect -- the cop takes a solicitous step toward my window and goes sotto voce. Adopting a confiding air, he offers:

"You know, you have to be careful . . . out on the streets, late at night. A lot of strange folks out at this time."

Got that right, Jack. Which is what I'm sharing with you here.

"Well, you've lived here a long time. You knew exactly what to do. You did the right thing, stopping here. You'll be okay. Now you get on home safely. Call if you need any more assistance."

"Assistance" is what you call this? Such a comforting guy! Thanks for the advice, my man, now I feel much more at ease.

And as he starts to walk away, he checks himself, turns back, and says:

"Say . . . what did you say your name was?"

Maybe just in case I do end up as a statistic.

Now I was miffed. The guy wasn't going to offer up so much as a sympathetic shoulder to lament on, and then he has the gall to admit he doesn't know who I am?!

If not by sight, then by reputation, at least. Hell, if the car chase didn't prove it, what possibly could?

Dude, I am legend!

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