The stranger I’d incensed in the rusty, white Volkswagen bus pumped his fist out the window, cussing. “Motherfucker,” he yelled. “I’m gonna get YOU!” His promise came with little javelins of spit that pelted out of his mouth, liquid vulgarity over which he had little control. That look — his detesting eyes, the scarlet veins branching through his neck — were nothing I’d ever seen before, at least not in the rear-view mirror of my father’s boat-sized Pontiac Grand Safari. My vehicular offense, apparently, was unforgiveable to the person now committed to my comeuppance. I’d forced the man to swerve when I’d inadvertently cut him off changing lanes on a road in the hilly Los Angeles suburb of Altadena. I was a seventeen-year-old high school junior then, and the fortyish, VW owner had found a target. “You motherfucker,” he kept saying.
Seated next to me that spring day in 1979 was one my best friends, Dave Ferris. Neither of us had any inkling how to elude the tailgater, let alone what he might do to us. “Road rage” hadn’t yet been coined. Our jabbering about the history instructor whose dentures had dropped to the floor mid-lecture stopped when we measured our vulnerability out here. I sped up to the next signal to get some separation. There was none. The Volkswagen stayed on my chrome bumper with the Led Zeppelin sticker on it, the hate coming out of that van like the singed, black exhaust it disgorged. Dave and I stared blankly ahead. The radio was flicked off. Our brains migrated into SOS wavelengths, yet there was no cop or Good Samaritan in sight on the rain-glistened streets. I pulled over into the right lane, going east, praying the stranger would settle for flipping us the bird off and tearing away. Surely, that’d satisfy his spleen over a lane-changing miscue. No, it would not. He jerked from behind me into the left lane. At the stoplight, he rolled his passenger-side widow down to glower again, as if he had decided we were worthy of his dark attentions. I knew I had to do something drastic or risk being on the six o’clock news. So, once the light flashed to green, I glided half a block, veering off with a sharp, right turn at the first street we passed. Consider yourself ditched, psycho! When I looked back, my stomach air dropped. Not only was our pursuer right behind us, his VW was blocking our escape on the block that was actually a cul-de-sac. We were dead meat over a mulligan.
The world then was an ornery, random place, just as it seems in 2012 as we wage wars without end and read cavalierly about the unemployed father who slaughters his family in a PTSD-stricken spasm. There was no Google, no Facebook, no Prius and no noticeably melting glaciers in 1979. There were Japanese stereos, computers as big as steamer-trunks, tricked-out Camaros and eye-watering smog. At our school, La Canada’s private Flintridge Preparatory, Dave and I had heard about how history loops in cycles, so prosperity ebbs into recession and fascism follows nationalism. Nobody, though, had explained why individual Americans were lashing out, as they deposited rattlesnakes in mailboxes and hung state leaders in effigy, why they moved into gated communities or took out gun permits by the barrell. To me, it was generational occurrence: every twenty years or so, a collection of folks were bound to scream the classic snarl from the movie, “Network” — “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!” Everything was going wrong in the land of opportunity. Disenchantment and self-doubt following Vietnam and Watergate had become embitterment and cynicism about the future, as the Arabs embargoed our oil and President Jimmy Carter cajoled us to turn down our thermostats in his Mr. Rogers sweater. Nowhere was the population brooding more than in “laid-back” Southern California, where the coastline still shimmered and tourists bought maps to the stars’ homes even as serial monsters – the “Freeway Killer,” “The Hillside Strangle,” Orange County’s Rodney Alcala –roamed the freeways and factories yanked up their stakes in the first vapors of globalization.
Think about the planet today and it’s easy to see the wreckage of the late-seventies in the refraction. A Democratic president promising to restore hope must battle the status quo while struggling to save our pensions and protect our borders. Today’s “Great Recession” was yesteryear’s “stagflation.” Wall Street bailouts and the collapse of GM recall the Chrysler Corp. bankruptcy requiring a $1-billion loan that infuriated many blue collars. People mistrustful of their government today need only revisit the national mood after the Three Mile Island disaster. Outside the country, the scowling faces of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and the students he allowed to seize the U.S embassy suggested we Westerners had no monopoly on anger. Forget, too, about John Wayne storming the desert to rescue the hostages. He’d expired from cancer. When Soviet tanks rolled down the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan, where superpowers go to die, any illusion of a well-adjusted, post-sixties planet circled the drain. Blood-thirsty, resentful folks made sure of that. Jerry Schneiderman, an untested space-planner with a startup firm and young family, never could’ve imagined that his city of scattered high-rises and dreamy potential would plop a resentful multi-killer with a contractor’s license into his lap. One bullet transformed the real into surreal in Los Angeles. One bullet and Jerry’s real-life education comprised an assassinated partner, an endangered child, an epileptic triggerman, a cross-dressing thief, and more post-traumatic lesions than Dr. Phil could address in a special. Read my true-crime book about him to verify any doubts. Jerry-endangered metastasized into Jerry-the-cunning.
The fuming soul who climbed out of his two-tone VW that day in ’79 was bearded and storkish, easily 6’3,” wearing an Army-surplus jacket that Robert DeNiro might’ve chucked in a Taxi Driver outtake. Outside his mini-bus, he was just as enraged as he’d been inside of it. Dave and I were statues in our seats as he swung up to the driver’s side window in what seemed a half-stride. Any second, I expected his hand would flash a pistol or machete and our blood would be all over the Pontiac’s caramel-colored, leather upholstery. My mind went weird – to the clinical. Instead of thinking about my defense when the weapon was drawn, I remember asking myself what misery – divorce, cancer, unemployment, loosened sanity, voices in the head – he hoped to exorcise by terrorizing us. Just because I’d forced him to swerve on a foggy afternoon. Maybe some part of me needed to know his suffering before he slaughtered us over it. Then his oversized noggin was fully leaning into the car, invading it, filling it with that bloodshot spirit. I tried not soiling myself as I leaned away. “Don’t ever, EVER, do that to ME again! You hear me, kid?” His breath reeked, not just of nicotine, but of something diseased inside. “Not to me.” “Yes sir,” I stammered.” He stared deep into my eyes, as if he were calculating whether we merited extermination with a “motherfucker” Banshee whoop. His right fist vibrated near me, slightly swaying for a interminable few seconds. What was in his other hand, the one outside the car, I wondered? I’d never know. Abruptly, he withdrew his fist and his head, stomping back to his VW bus, to his bottomed-out existence in a country malnourished for hope, and floored it. NEVER AGAIN!” he shouted. Something tells me we weren’t the last ones he’d stalk over the trivial.