23 BULLS Tearing Up the 210 Freeway
ADAM MICHAEL LUEBKE
In California, like everywhere else, most of the cars with you on the freeway are driven by unimportant humans, like myself and yourself, but the wild card in the Golden State is that every once in awhile you’ll get zipped by someone famous. Like Justin Bieber. Or Saddam Hussein (yes, it seems he’s still alive, but he’s not doing well), or Michael Jordan, number 23.
And in the case of the latter, I need to issue an apology for springing a full court press on him. Unless it wasn’t Air Jordan in the Cadillac CTS-V sedan. Unless it was another person with a 23 BULLS license plate, tearing up the 210 East toward San Bernardino.
Whoever he was, he maneuvered with precision, hammering down the fast lane, then weaving all the way across to the slow lane to make a fast break through the gap. He was risking a collision. Jockeying for space on the freeway is not the same as a rigged competition between premium athletes by the billionaires who own them. It’s an intemperate. unpredictable monster lolling between many people’s lives and their jobs.
I cussed out the Cadillac’s driver. Soon after, all lanes came to a halt.
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, TED KENNEDY?
The man in the Honda next to me stepped out. He was in his forties with a casual side-swept haircut and a clean shaven face. He dropped his hands into his shorts pockets and raised up on his tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the trouble ahead.
I glared at him. He was the other menace on the road. His hunter green car had blown by me not ten minutes prior. How we’d ended up at the same spot, I wasn’t sure.
When he’d passed me, he had his leg perched out the open driver’s side window. His bare foot braced against the wind.
That driving position didn’t seem legal. Even worse was the speed at which he traveled, and the erratic whipping from lane to lane. Did he think he was Ted Kennedy?
In the inevitable crash, there would be no congressional immunity for him. A thoughtless maniac like that. To be in such a compromised position in the vehicle. Pity the first aid crew having to unroll him like a pretzel from the steering wheel and pedals.
I stepped out and came around to his side. “What do you see up there?” I asked.
“Too far ahead to tell,” he said, squinting from the bright afternoon sun. “Somebody died, if all lanes are blocked like this. I’ve been driving on 210 long enough to get a feel for it. Must be a body or two on the blacktop, a flipped car, a crushed motorcycle.”
I recalled my own accident on Cesar Chavez and Broadway, in Los Angeles. An 88-year old lady ripped through a red and hit my front driver’s side. I speculate often that only one second stood between being killed or paralyzed. Instead, I suffered a concussion.
The doctor in Hollywood asked me, You know what the top two killers of men your age are?
I answered, Cheese and whiskey?
He slapped his big hands onto his tanned bald head and said, No. Cars and other men. He slid his hands over his face. Airbags should be everywhere, he said. On your side windows. In your steering wheel. Below, for your legs. Airbags, he said again before leaving the room, to soften the blow.
THIS IS HOW EXCITEMENT SPREADS
Back on the freeway, the reckless man in the Honda was recounting the horrific catastrophes he’d witnessed on his decade long commute between LA and San Bernardino. “Friday traffic is the worst,” he finally said. “I hate getting home late. I left work early to avoid this shit.”
“If you think it’s cutting into your weekend, just think how tormenting it is for Michael Jordan up there,” I told him. “How blocked in he must feel. He can’t leap over or dash around. It’s surprising California didn’t build VIP lanes
for celebrities ages ago to avoid that hassle.”
A large Hispanic man had emerged from his car. “Michael Jordan’s up there?” he asked. At that, three other dudes popped out of his car. “MJ?”
I halfheartedly tried to tell them I wasn’t sure. An older couple walked over and asked if we knew what happened ahead. Nobody answered.
Just like in grade school, when one kid looked to his crotch and asked to go to the restroom, a minute later everybody had to go. And so it was on the freeway that day.
Doors opened and shut. People drifted between cars. What a novelty, they all must have thought, to step on concrete that had always been like the blur of a conveyor belt in front of the windshield — pavement they would normally never get to touch under any legal circumstances (see Walking on the 405).
Before long, word spread that Michael Jordan was in his car somewhere not too far ahead.
The younger guys intensified the rumor by asking where, where, where. I delayed by placing my hand to my forehead and making a great show of scanning the Eastern horizon. I squinted my eyes against the glare.
“He knows,” someone said behind me, “but he ain’t telling.”
“If I can just spot the vehicle, I’ll point it out,” I said.
What’s the color, bro? they wanted to know. What’s the car? What’s the direction?
WHY WOULD MJ BE GOING TO SAN BERNARDINO?
A kid wearing a baseball hat with a square brim scoffed when he heard the group tittering about #23 possible marooned in his car on the 210 East. “Like MJ’s going to San Bernardino,” he said. He was a twig in a billowing purple shirt. I didn’t like his attitude. The words on his hat read YOUR MOM.
Another person, a middle-aged gentleman with a pink Lacoste polo shirt and white shorts, said, “Yeah, and he’s driving a Cadillac? I’d think he’d be in a car more luxurious than that.”
That seemed to dampen the crowd’s spirit. I didn’t like the drop in energy. So fervent they’d been for action. I turned and said to the mob, “We can bicker about particulars all day long.”
I said to the gentleman, “What do you have against Cadillac? Do they not make a quality vehicle?”
I looked at the kid and said, “San Bernardino isn’t the end of this road. Ever hear of Palm Springs? Beyond that, Las Vegas? Maybe Air Jordan wants to swoop through the desert listening to Rush Limbaugh and daydream of all-you-can-eat buffets and a private room full of blindfolded men and women listening to Miles Davis records and wearing panties and playing Dunk the Queer. You don’t think a private jet gets tiresome after awhile?”
There were murmurings after I said that.
“So let’s not get caught up with petty details, here. You people can battle with uncertainty your whole life. You can pick apart so-called factoids and Google technicalities until your optic nerves shred. But you’ll miss out. Although in this case, I can’t imagine it’s missing out on much, but the underlying issue is, you have to go with the overwhelming evidence and take a leap of faith at significant moments in your lives, such as this one is, it seems, for most of you.
“The basic evidence we have is foundation enough upon which we can build a solid premise.” I stared at the pink-shirted gentleman and raised my eyebrows. “We must infer what we can. For without we cannot take momentous leaps forward.”
I raised a hand and made each point by grabbing one finger. “I saw the license plate. 23 BULLS. That’s a sign. The windows were heavily tinted, but the driver’s side was rolled down when he passed me. I saw the bald head, the black bristly mustache, and the skinny cigar clinched between his teeth. He gripped the steering wheel with one hand, with pointer finger protruded. Probably to remind us he’s number one, if not on the court, in endorsements at least.”
I sighed. “And those are all pretty good signs.”
I held up my fingers, turned them into a fist, and shook it. “I think we’ve got enough to argue there’s an 85 percent chance that Michael Jordan is up there. It doesn’t take a philosophy whiz to throw some scuttlebutt back at anything that’s not 100 percent and say, ‘Yahbut we don’t know for sure.’ Of course we don’t. I didn’t say bet your life on it. But goodness, bet something when the going is good and the probability is high.”
“What about his tongue,” a woman in a sunhat said from the back of the crowd. “Did you see him stick out his tongue? That would be the ultimate sign.”
“Jordan doesn’t stick out his tongue while he’s driving!” I said. “He’s not a barbarian.”
LAWLESSNESS ON THE FREEWAY
Somebody said, “Why don’t we see him, then? What are we waiting for?”
“It can’t hurt,” the gentleman said. “I’m sure if it’s him, he’s as bored as we are. I watched him in all six championships. Two three-peats.” He scratched his head and said, “I’d kind of like to say hello.”
My reckless friend was already walking past cars looking for the Cadillac. I shouted to him, “Over there, first lane right of the carpool.” He spotted it about twenty-five yards ahead, and cut over two lanes. The others rushed past me to follow him.
“Keep in mind,” I hollered. A few stopped to listen. “This isn’t 1995 Michael Jordan. He’s sure to be a letdown now. Cranky. Infirm. Suffers from golfer’s elbow. Got a gut. Glassy-eyed. Fatter head. Abusive toward fans. Don’t count on him to roll down his windows for nothing. You’re going to have to get aggressive.”
They waved me off. What was wrong with trying? Nothing better to do if traffic was going to be at a standstill. Even the old couple sauntered along.
My reckless friend arrived at the Cadillac first. He tapped his knuckles on the trunk and made a curt wave to the driver’s side. He smiled and motioned to roll down the window.
“23 Bulls!” one of the young Hispanic men shouted when he saw the license plate. “It’s him! It’s him!” He waved his buddies to hurry. They went to the passenger’s side to peek in.
I can’t imagine young men normally act like they did that day on the freeway. It’s a disgrace to the younger generation. But let’s forgive them, in their golf ball-sized realities, they were under the influence of thinking they were living out a transcendent experience with a man who handled basketballs for a living.
The young men slapped their palms on the windows. “Come on, Michael!” one yelled. “I want you to sign my shoes.” He removed his sneaker and held it up.
Whoever was in that Cadillac must have kept the windows up and been throwing prayers to whatever his notion of God is to get the traffic moving.
The old couple snapped pictures of the license plate. Maybe they had a grandchild who would appreciate such a spectacle. Or maybe a son, a Bull’s fan from long ago, still reveling in the slam dunk from the free throw line, and other unimportant moments in history.
More people left their cars to surround Mr 23 BULLS. The shouts of “It’s Jordan, it’s Michael Jordan,” carried across the lanes. The man in the pink polo waved his arms as if to quiet the storm. “We don’t know for sure,” he said. “We’re checking.” The westbound traffic began to slow as drivers craned their necks to see what the commotion was about.
I sat in my car, locked the doors, and turned on the air conditioning. I couldn’t see the melee from there, but I didn’t mind. When traffic started moving again, the crowd dispersed, but reluctantly. I suspected Michael had not lowered his windows. Horns far behind us honked. My lane freed up sooner, and when I drove past the Cadillac in question, I put my fist out the window and pumped it.
I wondered if maybe it really was His Airness. “Well, I’m sorry, sport, to cause such commotion!” I called out and drove on.