The diagnosis of a tailgater is a hard one to swallow, and I'm still in partial denial. Us tailgaters have the utmost confidence in our ability to "see the road". We can whip around cars at a moments notice, brake on a dime, and we possess a preternatural understanding of traffic patterns. I'm not a tailgater! I'm just a superior driver!
But if I am a tailgater, which I'm not completely admitting to, where did this come from? Neither of my parents are, so unless it's a recessive trait, then my DNA is not to blame. Maybe it was born out of experience: some deep psychological scar that I have repressed for years that surfaces in the form of my driving habits.
And then I remembered Arthur.
My high school summer job was at the local Chevrolet Dealership. The job that I applied for was "car transporter", and the job that I got was "lot boy". Where the prior is the dream job of a car-coveting high school male, the latter involves sweeping up the shop, taking out the trash, and cleaning the interior of leather cars that have been cooking in the midday sun. While the dealership was happy to have a minimum-wage lot boy, they knew enough to let me drive a car around once in a while to keep my spirits up. On my first transport trip I met Arthur.
Arthur had the droopy sun-beaten tough skin of a man who was once bulky with muscle. There was a large faded tattoo of an anchor on his left forearm that he made sure to display by always having his sleeves rolled all the way up. There was always a pack of smokes in his T-shirt breast pocket and he sported some sort of gold-plated orthodontic work. He never went anywhere without his NAVY ball cap that he displayed proudly, precariously placed on top of his head, two-sizes too small. His life story was an incomprehensible cluster of gambling, failed marriages, glorified "good days", and, of course, the Navy. I can still picture him now, rolling onto the lot with the company transportation van, left arm hanging out the open window proudly displaying the tattoo, gold tooth glinting in the sun.
Our paths crossed when I was sent on my first mission to drop a car off at the auction. The operation was simple enough: I would drive said car, alongside Arthur in his van down to the auction, and then we would ride back together. Not only was I allowed whip around in a car, but it also meant that for at least a couple of hours I WASN'T cleaning the bathroom. It was a win-win.
I can't remember what kind of car I drove, but I can only assume it was some POS that my boss had shined and buffed and would sell at an inflated price to some sap who gets excited at the look of his own reflection in the side panels. But as a kid without my own car, I could have been driving a rusted-out Yugo as long as the wind flew in the window and the gas pedal responded to my foot.
Before we left the lot, Arthur got out of his car and waddled up to me. "Stay close to me" he barked. And then he put his fingers up in the pinching position, showing me the distance he wanted between his rear bumper and the front of mine. "Sounds good" I said, and we set off. But stoplights and cars got in my way, and after five minutes there were two cars between us. I could see his van just fine, and when he pulled onto the freeway, I jumped right back in behind him. Order was restored. I wasn't worried.
And then be pulled over. Not in a driveway, side road, or even the breakdown lane of the freeway. He pulled over on the one-lane on-ramp. I pulled over behind him, hoping the poor guy wasn't having a heart attack. As cars honked and flew by us, Arthur got out of his car and began walking back along the road towards my car. I rolled down my window as he got closer. He held his fingers up again, showing me the distance that I clearly did not understand the first time and then he unflinchingly shouted above the roar of engines, wind, and horns flying only inches past him, "When I say this close, I mean THIS CLOSE".
Well, I followed him pretty damn closely after that. As a 16-year old kid, when a tattooed, gold-toothed war vet tells you to do something that loudly, you do it. For the rest of the trips that summer, if I was following Arthur, I was living on his bumper. There was no distance too close, no stop sign that could come between us.