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Lileks: Spinning our wheels, literally and figuratively

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • February 27, 2014 - 9:56 PM

I saw something quite unexpected while driving the other day — couldn’t believe my eyes. Mirage? No: the real thing. A patch of pavement. I wanted to brake and go back and see if it really was actual naked street, but if I’d applied the brakes the car would have slid six blocks, and then you’re looking at the dash panel for the button that deploys the drag chute and the grappling hook. Did I get that option? No. Drat.

But I swear it was true, so I can vouch: There is, in the greater metro area, at least 2 square feet of roadway not covered with ice.

The roads make any driver feel like a hippo on skates. The other day I saw a car unable to get up a grade that was half as a steep as a driveway entrance. Traffic backed up for six blocks as the driver spun and spun, thinking perhaps that eventually the tires would wear away the ice, make contact with the pavement and propel the car forward with such force the driver’s face would ripple with G-forces. Dad, what’s that car doing in the tree? Must have finally struck asphalt, my child.

Same thing the next day at Target, except the grade was steeper, and the car was one of those tiny plastic things that’s not much bigger than its key fob and runs on D cells. Two people in the car behind leapt out to push, and they displayed so much enthusiasm I rolled down my window to hear if they were singing “HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY,” as though deputized by Mighty Mouse.

They got back in their car. And got stuck. No one got out to help. Apparently karma requires two to four weeks for processing and handling. Eventually they made it up. Next: A big truck trundled up the ramp, and spun its wheels so hard the rear moved back and forth like the haunches of a big bull trying to twerk. All the cars behind backed up in fear. As we waited for the truck to struggle up, we were treated to the sight of a Mini Cooper that sped to the head of the line, because if traffic wasn’t moving swiftly on a day where every road was covered with fresh ice, OBVIOUSLY someone was just sitting in their car playing Candy Crush.

HONKS. ANGER. This is where you want a bald circus strongman, complete with leotard and handlebar mustache, to get out of a vehicle, pick up the Mini Cooper, lift it over his head and deposit it at the end of the line, dusting off his hands when he’s finished, bowing to the applause of car horns.

But this did not happen, so everyone consoled themselves with the thought of the Mini Cooper hitting a patch of ice down the road and spinning so hard it made a Tilt-a-Whirl ride look like a boat in the Old Mill.

Seven minutes to go four car lengths? Normal for these glaciated times. A far more unnerving event — from a parent’s point of view, anyway — was the news of a school bus sliding through an intersection in north Minneapolis and hitting a car.

See, every parent remembers the day you drove the newborn home from the hospital: The car seat was belted, duct-taped and welded to the frame for good measure; you drove about 5 miles per hour and wished you had someone running ahead with a bell shouting, “INFANT! INFANT EN ROUTE!” and someone else behind you with a flame thrower to keep tailgaters at bay.

Five years later you put them in a bus, and feel as if you just put an egg in a shoe box that’s strapped to a skateboard. Go Google the phrase: “why don’t school buses have” and see what autocomplete suggests. That’s right: “seat belts.”

There are good reasons. School buses ride high, so the occupants are protected from impact. School buses are also sturdy beasts. The other day I was waiting at a light, and a school bus approaching on the cross street turned into the lane next to me. It hit the drift and lifted up; I backed up to give it room. It chewed through the snowbank and kept coming. All the cars were backing up now. No question: What a school bus wants, so shall it receive. You could stop a school bus on a runway at the airport, put on the blinkers and extend the all-powerful STOP sign, and planes that were 100 feet from lifting off would throttle back and steer for the ditch.

Which got me to thinking. They’re incredibly safe. They have a unique moral authority. The passengers don’t have to wear seat belts. Why am I not driving a school bus around town when I go on errands?

Get an old bus, paint it the proper pencil-hue yellow, write something like FAUXVILLE SPECIAL DISTRICT 3 on the side, and who’s to know? Hire some urchins to hang in the back and make mocking expressions out the window. No one would suspect a thing.

Anyway, it’s just one of the signs of the most honest, interminable and cheerfully malicious winter in decades. The ice will melt and we’ll stop complaining. Mostly because we’ll be busy complaining about potholes.

 

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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