I recently watched a TED talk by leadership expert Simon Sinek who said that 2.5% of the population are innovators, 13.5% are early adopters, and 34% make up people in the late-to-the-party majority. If there were any math left over, I would claim it for my family who were the staunch hold-outs, the-this-VCR-thing-is-obviously-a-fad disbelievers.
Many of my friends were already on their fifth or sixth generation microwaves with their shiny, sleek black facades, lower price points, and new dedicated buttons for things like baked potatoes and popcorn (SORCERY!). We were having none of it until one day my father came home from work heaving a grey, metal box only slightly smaller than Al Capone’s vault up the basement stairs into the kitchen.
“It’s a microwave!” he proclaimed, sounding like the dad in A Christmas Story attempting to pass off his tacky leg lamp as a “statue.” It was a laughable oxymoron taking up three-quarters of our already small kitchen counter. Someone at work looking to get rid of it had pawned it off on my father. We weren’t surprised. This was the same man who went “shopping” for pencils, pens, and notepads in the company office supply closet. My dad produced two packets of some generic brand of microwave popcorn for the thing’s maiden voyage. We plugged in the machine, put a packet on the rotating dish inside, punched in the time on the oven’s enormous, sticky keypad, and waited. The microwave kicked on to produce a deep hum somewhere in frequency between a sump pump and a jackhammer. I am pretty sure the lights in the kitchen dimmed ever so slightly. The air took on the scent of artificial butter and burnt lint. We fished out the damp bag of slightly undercooked popcorn and picked at it like a family of birds fussing over the remains of a worm. This was the future.
I think it was the first and last time we used our “new” cooking miracle worker. We preferred to eat reheated Chinese food without the copper aftertaste.
My dad’s been gone for more than twenty years, missing out on all the tech that has made our lives easier and more challenging. I often wonder what he’d make of the watches that serve as computers, the drones delivering soap and shampoo door to door, or the phones that could launch nuclear missiles. I think he would have eventually, haltingly, complainingly embraced some of it, except for one innovation: the highway E-Z pass.
To those like my dad who came of age in the 1950s and 60s, driving was not the functional, time-sucking nightmare it often is today. I can say this because I’m from Boston, a city built on a series of cow paths where drivers navigate inscrutable arteries in various stages of crumbling disrepair or questionable construction, competing with busses, bikers, Uber and taxi drivers, and pedestrians meandering around with their eyes pried to their smart phones (guilty). I’ve been in miles of cars backed up on route 93 at noon on a Friday trying to get to Cape Cod, but feeling more like you’re in a gridlock scene clipped from a zombie apocalypse movie. The only drivers who look like they’re enjoying themselves are the ones hired for BMW commercials, careening along empty coastal roads or flying through desolate New Zealand countryside. Do not attempt at home, reads the tiny disclaimer at the bottom of the screen. No shit. Couldn’t if we tried.
My dad’s generation had an entirely different relationship with driving. A car was freedom on four wheels. Cheap gas and roads that unspooled through big stretches of America for anyone to experience. Saturday nights were spent cruising—roving hang-outs with your friends, driving around the same loop of road to see and be seen. Girls were usually involved. For guy’s like my dad who were under their own father’s thumb, who were struggling with reconciling who they were against who their families expected them to be, driving meant you could literally transport yourself to another place; you could shed your skin, trade the stifling alley of your life for a wide expanse of open road.
There was a change that came over my dad when he was driving, especially driving long distances on the highway. An ease stole over him. He’d often hang his entire arm outside the window, hugging the car door a little or sometimes he’d grip the edge of the roof. All the windows were always rolled completely down, leaving the rest of us wind whipped. Yet none of us asked him to pull them up a little bit as if we implicitly knew not to tread upon whatever this gift was he gave himself.
And then there were the tollbooths. Every lane was almost always staffed with a worker when I was a kid. The automated bucket and ticket dispenser were the exceptions, not the norms. My dad had a sort of ritual going through the tolls that became a part of how my brother and I absorbed these long trips. Whoever was in the passenger seat, which was typically my brother while my mother and I sat wind chapped in the back seat because GENDER, had the job of giving my dad the money for the tolls so that he wouldn’t have to fumble around for change.
As he rolled up to the window, my dad would give the person a very formal and distinct nod as if they were exchanging some kind of code. After he handed over the money or collected change back from his bill, he’d say loudly: “Thankyou” in this clipped tone that sounded like it were one word. The level of gravity in these exchanges was on par with getting an commendation from the President. My brother and I started mimicking him mercilessly. We tried to match his serious voice with our own “thankyou” called out to the collector as we drove off because HILARITY. Why he never pulled off at the closest rest stop and leave us with a “FREE” sign pinned to our shirts, I’ll never know.
I think about all of this when I’m zipping underneath the metal skeletons and electronic eyes of the E-Z pass lane. It’s wildly convenient. You barely have to dial down the gas as you sail through, shaving seconds off your drive time, dodging the interminable line of cars inching towards the booths at the beginning or end of travel on a holiday weekend. It’s also lonely.
I miss that brief pause at the tolls when you got to connect with another person for a few seconds. I miss pulling up to that window at one o’clock in the morning in the middle of a long ride home and looking into the eyes of the guy working his crappy graveyard shift at the tolls. There is that moment where you smile and say “how’s it going?” because you can see in that instant that there is a whisker-thin membrane between the two of you and your small talk is a way of really saying “I see you. You’re doing your best to make it work, to get by, to be here with the rest of us.”
From time to time I would also pay the toll for the driver behind me. It seemed to make the tollbooth operator as happy as it did the motorist—humanity puncturing our automated existence, a reminder that there is more to being on the road than finding the quickest route.
I think my father had a sense of this as well. His quirky, stylized exchanges at the tolls his own way of recognizing that we drive to find ourselves, but we’re finding each other along the way.