“Chasha!!” exclaimed Ujjal when we were abruptly cut off by a pickup truck on the highway.
“Chasha” - or Peasant - was a derisive word Ujjal often used to describe pick-up truck drivers. “I hate pick-up trucks,” he said. “They never use turn signals; they tailgate; they don't turn off their high beams when other cars are ahead; and they carry rude bumper stickers, just in case someone did not notice that they were rude!” As soon as he stopped to catch his breath, I pointed out that he did not hate pick-up trucks per se. His problem was with those behind the wheels of those vehicles. His response was an eye roll and then a grin, in that order. Although I am, in principle, against profiling of any kind, I could not but agree with him that pick-up truck drivers were quite a menace on the roads.
I had just started driving in the US, where we had recently moved after having lived in Jamaica for several years, and where, as in India, they drive on the left side of the road. I had been a pretty confident driver in Jamaica. The unhurried attitude of the drivers on the roads there had been very forgiving of my questionable skills as a driver.
After moving to the US in 1997, I was in for a rude shock when I first got behind the wheel. My confidence level as a driver went on a downward spiral, especially on the highways. The pick-up truck drivers became the bane of my existence because they could follow me into the left lane, unlike the tractor trailers. I would always get the left and right lanes mixed up. I invariably ended up on the left lane thinking that is where the slowpokes were meant to be! Every time I was in the left lane with a pick-up behind me like a bloodhound, I would invoke every God I had ever known of, praying for deliverance.
Always one to try to get to the bottom of things, I started researching. Was there any scientific explanation for this? While I could not get my hands on any empirical research findings, the anecdotal evidence that I dug up led me to conclude that too many pick-up truck drivers share common and dangerous driving characteristics -- speeding, tailgating, and frequent and careless lane changes. They seem to drive with an attitude that, if involved in an accident, they will be the ones walking away from it. Surely there are careful, courteous and defensive drivers behind the wheels of pick-up trucks, but they are clearly in a minority.
I learned to be extra cautious and to expect the unexpected when these large vehicles suddenly appeared in my rear-view mirror and, over time, got my left and right orientation righted on the highways. I became a more confident driver, but I still got on my guard whenever a pick-up truck came too close on the roads.
A decade later, in late 2008, I was trying to get a teaching position in the New Jersey public school system. I had passed the dreaded Praxis examinations and obtained my teaching certification in the summer of 2008 and had started job hunting in earnest. After about fifty fruitless applications, I was elated when I was called for an interview for an elementary school six-month vacancy position in the Hunterdon school district. The interview was scheduled for the following Monday at 11:00 AM. In those days, Ujjal did most of the driving, especially when we were going to unfamiliar places or on long distance trips. However, when I broached the idea of being chauffeur-driven to my interview, he pleaded that he just could not take the day off.
“Oh well!” I thought, I will do this by myself! I did not have a smartphone in those days, nor did I have a GPS device in my car. To be on the safe side, I looked up the location and decided to do a dry run to the school the day before my interview. I googled the directions and carefully wrote them down. I set off with my eight-year-old daughter as the designated navigator in charge of reading the directions aloud. As we drove, I realized with some trepidation that this was a completely rural part of Hunterdon County, with long stretches of farmlands and not a soul to be seen. We reached the school without any trouble and I drove back, confident that I had done my due diligence and would be fine going there alone the next day. I decided that the next order of business was to buy something professional to wear for the interview. My daughter and I went shopping and I was happy with my purchase of a fawn grey pant suit with an ivory blouse. The new clothes and my trip to the school boosted my confidence and I got down to preparing for the interview.
The next morning, I donned my brand-new pant suit, said a quick prayer to the Gods and set off well ahead of schedule for my 11:00 AM interview. All was well initially but about ten minutes after getting off the highway I realized that I must have taken a wrong turn. I was suddenly on a dirt road with farmland on either side. I stopped and tried calling Ujjal. He had told me he was going to be in meetings all morning. As I feared, he did not pick up. I started again and drove on hoping to hit some milestone that I had seen the previous day. With growing dread, I realized that I was truly lost.
It was now 10:45 AM and I was close to tears. I kept driving, searching in vain for a familiar sight from the previous day. Suddenly, in my rear-view mirror, I spotted a pick-up truck careening towards me. “Just what I need right now “, I muttered to myself. I veered to the side of the road and stopped to let it pass. I did not want to be intimidated by a pick-up truck driver today of all days! My cup of woes was pretty full already. The truck came roaring down the road and passed me without slowing down. And then, to my surprise, it screeched to a halt right in front. A burly, disheveled man got off and walked towards my car.
As I saw him approaching, I had the sinking feeling that my nemesis and I were finally meeting in person! Was this divine retribution? Did he somehow know that I hated pick-up truck drivers? Of course he didn’t! I chided myself for being silly. I took a few deep calming breaths, said a prayer, summoned every last ounce of courage and rolled down my window. He came to the side of my car, “Are you lost?”, he asked. I noticed that he had not prefaced his question with a greeting! He did not smile either. “Yes”, I said. “I am trying to reach the elementary school for an interview at 11:00 AM and must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.” He gave me a long stare and then broke into a wide smile. “Follow me”, he said. “It’s just around the corner”. Without waiting for me to answer, he strode back to his pick-up truck and started driving. Thoughts were racing in my head. What was I to do now? Should I follow? Should I just forget about the interview, stay put and wait for Ujjal to call back? But then, had I not desperately tried to land an interview for months? What if this was my lone shot at getting a teaching position? I steeled my nerves and decided to follow him.
After what was a few minutes but seemed like an eternity, we took a turn and I spotted a landmark from my previous trip. The man led me to the parking lot, rolled down his window and waved a cheery hand. “Good luck!” he yelled and drove off. I had arrived!
As I ran in for my interview and breathlessly introduced myself to the receptionist, I noticed a beautiful blonde young woman sitting on a chair in the waiting area. She was wearing a suit identical to mine! The ivory blouse and the grey suit fitted her perfectly. Her salon styled hair and make-up and her overall poise painted a picture of a confident young professional. I felt dowdy and unkempt in comparison. I did not have much time to dwell on this, as I was ushered in for my interview. “You are the first on the list today”, said the receptionist. “Good Luck!” The interview went really well. The panel of interviewers seemed to like what I was saying and forty-five minutes later I left the room feeling like I had given it my best shot. As I walked out, I heard the receptionist tell the young blonde woman that she was next.
I did not get that job. Did the young blonde get it? I have no idea. What I do know is that I learned an enduring lesson that day. Help can come even from the one you fear!
Make room for the pick-up trucks on the road!
(Posted June 1, 2020)
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The Man in the Pick-up Truck