Sobering Up Behind the Wheel


Part 1: How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink

When it comes to taking chances, some people like to play poker or shoot dice; other people prefer to parachute jump, go rhino hunting, or climb ice floes, while still others engage in crime or marriage.

But I like to get drunk and drive like a fool. Name me, if you can, a better feeling than the one you get when you’re half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke up your nose and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over while you’re going a hundred miles an hour down a suburban side street. You’d have to watch the entire Iranian air force crash-land in a liquid petroleum gas storage facility to match this kind of thrill. If you ever have much more fun than that, you’ll die of pure sensory overload, I’m here to tell you.

But wait. Let’s pause and analyse why this particular matrix of activities is perceived as so highly enjoyable. I mean, aside from the teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over. Ignoring that for a moment, let’s look at the psychological factors conducive to placing positive emotional values on the sensory end product of experientially produced excitation of the central nervous system and smacking into a lamppost. Is that any way to have fun? How would your mother feel if she knew you were doing this?

She’d cry. She really would. And that’s how you know it’s fun. Anything that makes your mother cry is fun. Sigmund Freud wrote all about this. It’s a well-known fact.

Of course, it’s a shame to waste young lives behaving this way — speeding around all tanked up with your feet hooked in the steering wheel while your date crawls around on the floor mat opening zippers with her teeth and pounding on the accelerator with an empty liquor bottle. But it wouldn’t be taking a chance if you weren’t risking something. And even if it is a shame to waste young lives behaving this way, it is definitely cooler than risking old lives behaving this way. I mean, so what if some 58-year-old butt-head gets a load on and starts playing Death Race 2000 in the rush-hour traffic jam? What kind of chance is he taking? He’s just waiting around to see what kind of cancer he gets anyway. But if young, talented You, with all of life’s possibilities at your fingertips, You and the future Cheryl Tiegs there, so fresh, so beautiful — if the two of you stake your handsome heads on a single roll of the dice in life’s game of stop-the-semi — now that’s taking chances! Which is why old people rarely risk their lives. It’s not because they’re chicken, they just have too much dignity to play for small stakes.

Now a lot of people say to me, "Hey, P.J., you like to drive fast. Why not join a responsible organisation, such as the Sports Car Club of America, and enjoy participation in sports car racing? That way you could drive as fast as you wish while still engaging in a well-regulated spectator sport that is becoming more popular each year." No thanks. In the first place, if you ask me, those guys are a bunch of tweedy old barf mats who like to talk about things like what necktie they wore to Alberto Ascari’s funeral.

And in the second place, they won’t let me drive drunk. They expect me to go out there and smash into things and roll over on the roof and catch fire and burn to death when I’m sober. They must think I’m crazy. That stuff scares me. I have to get completely sh*t-faced to even think about driving fast. How can you have a lot of exciting thrills when you’re so terrified that you wet yourself all the time? That’s not fun. It’s just not fun to have exciting thrills when you’re scared. Take the heroes of the Iliad, for instance. They really had some exciting thrills, and were they scared? No. They were drunk. Every chance they could get. And so am I, and I’m not going out there and having a horrible car wreck until somebody brings me a cocktail.

Also, it’s important to be drunk because being drunk keeps your body all loose, and that way, if you have an accident or anything, you’ll sort of roll with the punches and not get banged up so bad. For example, there was this guy I heard about who was really drunk and was driving through the Adirondacks. He got sideswiped by a bus and went head-on into another car, which knocked him off a bridge, and he plummeted 150 feet into a ravine. I mean, it killed him and everything, but if he hadn’t been so drunk and loose, his body probably would have been banged up a lot worse — and you can imagine how much more upset his wife would have been when she went down to the morgue to identify him.

Even more important than being drunk, however, is having the right car. You have to get a car that handles really well. This is extremely important, and there’s a lot of debate on this subject — about what kind of car handles best. Some say a front-engined car; some say a rear-engined car. I say a rented car. Nothing handles better than a rented car. You can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed in a rented car than in any other kind. You can also park without looking, and you can use the trunk as an ice chest. Another thing about a rented car is that it’s an all-terrain vehicle. Mud, snow, water, woods — you can take a rented car anywhere. True, you can’t always get it back, but that’s not your problem, is it?

Yet there’s more to a good-handling car than just making sure it doesn’t belong to you. It has to be big. It’s really hard for a girl to get her clothes off inside a small car, and this is one of the most important features of car handling.

Also, what kind of drugs does it have in it? Most people like to drive on speed or cocaine with plenty of whiskey mixed in. This gives you the confidence you want and need for plowing through red lights and passing trucks on the right. But don’t neglect downs and ‘ludes and codeine cough syrup either. It’s hard to beat the heavy depressants for high-speed spinouts, backing into trees, and a general feeling of not giving two f*cks about man and his universe.

Part 2: How to Drive Fast When the Drugs Are Mostly Lipitor, the Wing-Wang Needs More Squeezing Than It Used to Before It Gets the Idea

"Part 1" above was published in the National Lampoon in 1978 or ’79 when I was half my age. To not despise yourself when you were a twerp of 31 requires a more philosophical mind than this old fart possesses. The more so when that twerp was right. And he — that is, I — was right, especially about getting married, having a family, the mortgage, the liver, and the Country Squire (or, as it turned out, the SUV). Of course I didn’t marry the teenage lovely in the tube top.

(Gosh, tube tops … As Alzheimer’s creeps upon me, please God, let that be the last memory I lose.) True love and common sense intervened to make sure that I gained a beautiful spouse who can read and write and stuff and who does not want to drive from Boston to Mexico without stopping at several Ritz-Carltons. The other reason I didn’t wed the teenage lovely in the tube top was that she didn’t exist. I mean, she existed. I saw her every day on the summer streets of New York. But she didn’t see me. I was dweeby, Brooks Brothers-clad, and invisible to her ilk. And so I have remained these thirty years. All for the best, I suppose.

Yet families do slow you down. I’ll be power-sliding through some mountain pass with a bottomless ravine yawning inches from my tire treads and suddenly images of my children — Muffin, Poppet, and Buster — will flash before my eyes. Even so, I don’t press the accelerator, yank the wheel, and plunge to eternal rest. This must be some paternal instinct or maybe a drug that the life insurance companies slip us.

Speaking of drugs, let me get back to mocking my shavetail self. Yes, it was the 1970s. Yes, I indulged in "youthful experimentation", which is to say I smoked, snorted, or otherwise consumed every illegal drug I could get my hands on. Alas, my reach exceeded my grasp. I had trouble getting my hands on any drugs. Mayor Koch had better drug connections than I did. And I, for Pete’s sake, knew John Belushi personally. I loved the drugs, but I had no head for the drug business. Again, this was all for the best, I suppose.

The fact that I was incapable of mastering brokerage trading at even such a basic level as entering one side of Washington Square Park with a $5 bill and leaving the other side with a matchbox full of oregano is what kept me from venturing — as so many of my drug-addled pals did — onto Wall Street. Thus I am spared the shame of responsibility for the current global financial meltdown (and the extra-shameful billions in skimmed profits that, with a guilt so strong it might almost cause me to make restitution, I would have salted away in the Cayman Islands). So I’m not writing this via satellite uplink from my 200-foot yacht in international waters, beyond the reach of the FBI and Treasury agents, darn it.

The smirky knowingness about drugs, like the teenage lovely in the tube top, were products of wishful thinking or whatever the equivalent of thinking is that you do at that age between your knees and navel. My exegesis on the handling properties of rental cars, however, was the product of careful research. Because rental cars were the only cars I had. Here I was exhorting readers to drive like Steve McQueen in Bullitt, plus with a snootful, a blindfold, and an erection, and I didn’t own an automobile.

I hadn’t had a functioning four-wheeled motor vehicle since long before that piece was written. And I’d crashed my motorcycles. (The motorcycle is a device created by the team of God and Darwin to rid the world of useless young males.) I was just conniving to get my last motorcycle wreck repaired when the 11,000 votive candles lit by my mother at Sacred Heart caused it to be stolen by archangels.

By then I’d moved to New York so that many of the adventures I’ve recounted — when true at all — took place in yellow cabs. Such a pigeon dick of a city brat had I become that I actually let my driver’s license lapse.


This is an edited extract from P.J. O’Rourke’s Driving Like Crazy — 30 years of vehicular hell-bending, 2009, published by Atlantic Books

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