Just about everyone is reading it. Are you?
(No affiliate links or gratuities received. Just a great book.)
This is the first chapter from the remarkable book Invisible Driving by Alistair McHarg. If you missed the interview read it here.
The Empty Car
These are glory days for Invisible Driving. I’ve discovered the core position, The Empty Car. While performing The Empty Car I’m in the driver’s seat with feet on pedals in the normal arrangement but all of me above waist level is bent over, resting on the passenger’s seat. I have the mirrors set so that I can still see perfectly well but to all observers the car is unoccupied. It’s incredibly funny. We’re talking radnopolis funny. Impossible for me to pull this maneuver without cracking up into a squizzling, snerchified hysterical laughter. I laugh with a nervous, giddy delight at the sheer absurdity of it. I laugh with a childish delight at the outrageousness of it. I laugh with an anxious excitement, agitated by the risk. But I laugh most uncontrollably as I imagine the reactions of the passengers in the cars who see this apparition. The ghost car. This is my only regret, that I never get to hear the comments of the people who have this performance foist, and the foist shall be last and the last shall be foist, upon them. How does one react when one confronts the thing which cannot be? Eh? See? If, as a teenager, you ever mooned a busload of senior citizens, that is, exposed your naked behind to them from a moving automobile, you have an idea of some of the facial expressions I encounter when I reemerge from my crouch. Contempt. Shock. Surprise. Extippitox squatchifromp. Amazement. Naturally it’s the kids who enjoy it most. Unlike so many of the adults who try to ignore this inexplicable phenomenon, the kids point, laugh, jump up and down, and stare. Once, I slowed down at a stoplight after a particularly long stretch of invisibility to find myself, which was an enormous relief because I’d been looking for myself everywhere, being applauded by a carload of black youths. It’s not unusual for cars to follow me for miles as though their drivers are trying to reconfirm that they are indeed seeing what they think they’re seeing. An empty car driving down the road, obeying speed limits and other traffic regulations. I’ve started to see some of the same cars with a certain regularity. They follow me, forming a kind of train. Talk about building a following, talk about squazmogrified pontippelation. Taking my show on the road. This invention will certainly cinch my claim to fame, and the fortune that comes along with it. If it’s ever been done before I’m certainly unaware of it. Surely such a unique, delightful, original gift to society deserves compensation.
Downtown Invisible Driving is the most difficult but provides the biggest rewards. Though my hyper-awareness, my sensitivity to everything going on around me, makes it easier it’s still a risky occupation but isn’t greatness always risky, it’s only mediocrity that offers no challenge. I don’t want to ruin the fun by getting into an accident, or worse, being stopped by a policeman. So the stretches of Invisible Driving are short, short, but effective. A quick swoop down Chestnut Street during lunch hour is always successful. Lots of pedestrians. One notices, stops in his or her tracks, and sets off a whole wave of wonder. If George Bush was prancing down the street naked I can’t imagine there would be more dropped jaws. I’m also fond of driving up to my favorite spots at night, the hotels where there are always doormen and people coming in and out. I pull up very slowly, the black Volvo sedan, clean, conservative, quiet, purring up to the door, stealthy, driverless. I let the patrons get a good look and then cruise on. It’s wonderful, so goddamn funny I can’t believe it. A legend is being born. A modern day equivalent of the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow.
As the last days of January evaporate like snow from a sidewalk I hone and refine my repertoire. I told Claire about my discovery. She found it inspired, thinking of it in terms of performance art. With her permission, I rummaged through her workroom for props. Jackpot. Claire, who loves odd things and never throws anything away, has some bizarre artifacts, among them, a pair of Mickey Mouse hands. Rather, huge, white, plastic gloves. I use these, and one of her mannequins, in Invisible Driving stunts. The Mickey Mouse gloves serve in the Invisible Driving position I call, Look Ma, No Hands. I drive the car by steering with my knees and slip on the plastic hands. Then I hold up the enormous white gloves so that everyone can see that I’m driving without using my hands. There are many ways to drive a car and some of them are legal. I make elaborate use of them for hand signals, indicating a right turn by sticking my right arm out of the passenger’s window. Or, I hold them both up, palms forward, and rock them back and forth in tandem like twin pendulums on a demented cuckoo clock. If I’m not satisfied that I’m generating enough interest I stick them both out the window, left hand out of left window and right hand out of right window, and grip the roof as though if I let it go it will come flying off. This makes it clear to even the least astute observer that I’m driving without the use of my hands.
The mannequin makes it possible to perform, The Invisible Chauffeur. I set Claire’s mannequin up in the back seat, always careful to strap her in with the three-point seat belt. Safety first. Unfortunately Claire didn’t have a wig for her. Small surprise there, what Claire spends on cosmetics in a year wouldn’t pay my bar tab at the Four Seasons for a week. However I do have a sweater, scarf, and coat for her, and a hat. From a distance she’s convincing enough. And that’s what it’s all about. Illusion. Combine The Empty Car with a mannequin in the back seat and I have, The Invisible Chauffeur. This goes over particularly well at The Four Seasons, The Bellevue, and The Rittenhouse, all of which have highly visible approaches to their front doors. A woman sitting in the back seat of a conservative car, being driven to the door of a luxury hotel, is a commonplace sight. But on closer examination, the car has no driver. Why does the woman seem so composed, given these circumstances?
After a while the doormen at these places got the idea and they get quite a kick out of it. If there are patrons around they act appropriately disinterested but if it’s just them they laugh, drag their coworkers out of the hotel to catch a look, holler at me to come in, generally sign on. They get it. They’re on the bus. They’re street level, real people. I feel a kinship with them, we’re all in this together. They know I’m doing publicly what they do privately, mock the world they have to take seriously, the world of chauffeurs, the world of show furs, opulence, leisure. I’m becoming an underground celebrity which must explain why I’m coffin. McHarg, the only man to become famous by becoming invisible. But it’s not my aim to become famous, this is just something to amuse myself, and others, until stardom shows up at my door, relieved to have found me at last. I have an enormous appetite for entertainment, and a very short attention span.
Perhaps the most obscure of all the Invisible Driving positions is, A Day In The Life Of Isadora Duncan. This one is for double bonus points. I’m always wearing scarves, a stylish fashion accessory which I employ, though unemployed myself I am an employer, to maximum effect. I take the longest one, a wool number with a bright, predominately red Tartan, and gradually feed it out the window when another car is next to me. As it begins to whip in the wind I feed it out more until at last it stretches practically to the back of the car. By then, of course, I have the attention of the people in the car next to me. When I’m certain I have their full notice, and not just their thirty-day notice, I clutch my throat as though the scarf is choking me, pulling me out of the car. I panic, bug-eyed, making quite a production of it. At last I lay my head out of the window, tongue drooping ominously, like a dead deer. Are there any liberal arts majors out there who get this one? I don’t know. If there are, I hope they’ll save the last dance for me.
It’s For You is an Invisible Driving position in response to the popularity of car phones. Car phones are starting to become commonplace and I marvel at the self-important way that people use them, making sure to let everyone see that they have one. What could be so important that it can’t wait until they get home, or back to the office? It makes them feel important, and above all, productive in an upwardly mobile sort of way, to use a car phone. I took one of the phones from my house, since the service has been shut off there isn’t much else to do with them, and put it in my car. I spot some hot shot jabbering away on his car phone and I start jabbering away too, pretending to be talking to somebody. I shadow the car, staying right next to him in the adjoining lane so that we both stop at a traffic light at the same time. Then I honk my horn to get his attention and when I do, motion for him to roll down his window. This invariably provokes irritation and confusion. What fun. What squatch. What kind of fool am I, that likes to mess with heads? Mixing it up with the reptiles. Running circles round the squares. In most cases the person, nearly always a man, relents and rolls down the passenger’s side window. When he does I offer my phone to him and say with a totally deadpan expression, “It’s for you.” Anger, scowls, eyes rolling upwards towards heaven, unless of course heaven is not above in which case they’re merely rolling upwards towards the air pollution, the reactions are predictable. One guy did laugh. Another guy earned himself a permanent place in my personal pantheon by looking at me and cool as an assassin saying, “Just take a message and have him call me back.” That one cracked me up and God knows that doesn’t happen often enough. Bless the ones who get the joke and bless the ones who get on the bus.
As I drive invisibly I do a play-by-play monologue, as though I’m describing a ball game. “Now it’s an empty car. Now it’s a car with a person in the front passenger seat but no driver. I can’t believe I’m doing this with no hands. Now it’s a car being driven by a very, very, very short man. Now it’s a car being driven by a man with Mickey Mouse hands, and they’re not on the wheel.” The more I talk about it, the more rapanoochie it becomes. Of course, whenever I see a cop, I snap back into regulation status. “Now it’s a car being operated normally.”
One of the most challenging of the positions is, Nail It. Claire has taken to painting my toenails for some reason. God knows how long she’s had the nail polish. Say God, how long has she had the nail polish? No answer. I rest my case. I don’t think she has a message in it, rather, she just finds it a pleasant, hedonistic activity. A means of pampering that most neglected, hard working appendage, the foot. And, a splendid way to cap off an afternoon of toe sucking. So, in addition to a host of other quirks, including Rahsaan Roland Quirk, that one is for double bonus points, I’m now traipsing around town with bright purple toenails. When inclined, and even on level stretches of road, but folks, I remove my shoe and sock from my left foot and stick my left leg out the driver’s window and into the bitter, winter air. It’s difficult. The leg has to stretch quite a bit to do it. And in a car with a clutch, I always have to be ready to get the leg back inside at a moment’s notice in case I need to change gears. Awareness is key, but for the effect to work, I have to appear relaxed. Not an easy stunt and worthy of my growing acumen which I’d planted in the back yard and watered regularly. When I perform this one I’m careful to point out to the usually appalled spectators that my toenails are painted. I need them to know that I go the extra distance for them. After all, it’s details like these that separate the near great from the masters.
My intent is merely to delight. I discovered Invisible Driving one day and having discovered it I revel in it. I’m the soul of generosity, giving the world a unique gift. I’m certain that many of the drivers and pedestrians who witness these bizarre stunts are angered by my recklessness but there are others who understand. There’s no harm intended, least of all to others. This is humor. Not ethnic slur humor, not toilet humor. Concept humor. A sliver of divine absurdity slipped into an otherwise average day. Something to make you laugh, so we can both laugh.
Invisible Driving does have a dark side too, but this is not for public consumption. The dark side slithers out of the swamp in the middle of the night, on abandoned roads, when there are no people around to entertain. There are Invisible Driving positions that have an audience of one, just me. Positions like Stealth Bomber, where my car is guided by moonlight only, all lights having been switched off. Positions like Ray Charles, where navigation is by sound alone. And the ultimate in Invisible Driving, Ray Charles – Stealth Bomber Pilot. If my heart is beating, I must still be alive.
Put on your seat belt and prepare for an exhilarating trip! “Invisible Driving” by Alistair McHarg is a fast roller-coaster ride through a full-blown episode of mania, riotously funny but also profoundly sad and even frightening. It’s a must read for anyone acquainted with Bipolar Disorder, closely or otherwise, or who wants to understand it better. In fact it would be a great read for just about anyone who isn’t easily shocked.
I have been fortunate to interview Alistair McHarg by email.
Invisible Driving is unusual for its fast paced manic narration. It gives the reader a great insight into the flighty, grandiose, irritable thoughts that the bipolar person experiences. You’ve carried it off beautifully, which probably makes it unique. What were the challenges in writing in this way?
As far as I know, the book is unique and unprecedented in this respect. My goal was to take readers inside the experience of mania, so they could see it, hear it, and feel it. I began writing without even knowing if this was possible. The greatest challenge was that I wrote it when I was “back on earth” so I had to mentally return to that manic place in order to recapture the speech patterns, intensity, and cracked logic. In doing so I risked sparking yet another episode. From a literary standpoint the technical challenges were immense – mania is another world, the language had to give readers a visceral sense of that strange place.
Writing the book must have been an enormous project. Can you describe your motivation?
It was a massive, difficult project. My motivation was a newly discovered instinct for self-preservation. I had led a life of self-destruction up to that point. It had become painfully clear that if I didn’t get a grip on Manic Depression, it would literally kill me. (Indeed, I realized that it was something of a miracle I was still alive.) The ordeal I had just experienced was so catastrophic that I resolved to do whatever needed to be done so as to assure there would be no repetition. I had no clue what Manic Depression was all about, but I understood that I had to find out so I could deal with it.
What possessed you to face and relive the misery of your illness to write the book?
At first it was a matter of personal archeology. I wanted to go over the events and write about them while they were fresh in my mind. The details were so unbelievable; I desperately needed to capture them, if for no other reason than just to make sure it wasn’t all some hideous dream. At some point an angry, vengeful determination was born, I wanted to drill down to the very core of this experience and reveal it entirely, the delirious humor, pain, magic, and intensity. It had been costly on many levels, and I became fierce about making it pay me back in self-awareness. It did, but not without a fight.
Towards the end of the book you wrote “From too high to too low, and back again, now I spend time solidly in the middle.” Was there a change in you that acted as a catalyst for recovery?
Absolutely, a sea change. I had always been a shy, reserved person – insecure, private, afraid of being known – and a stranger to my own feelings. The episode cracked me open like a pinata at a child’s birthday party. In “acting out in totally involuntary ways I unmasked myself, I had no secrets left; the private fears that ruled me were racing the streets like rampaging demons. Writing about those manic months was a grueling tutorial in what truly made me tick – an unpleasant revelation but an invaluable one. Seeing myself as damaged helped make it possible to forgive myself, which, in turn, made it easier to love others.
What positive things have resulted from your illness? Is Invisible Driving an optimistic book?
Anyone can be happy when things are going well. But in Invisible Driving you have the story of a man who faces his worst possible nightmare and emerges on the other side having gained his manhood, his courage, and his humanity. Indeed, Manic Depression has been a gift for me, and my battle with it a story of redemption and spiritual growth. In a very odd way I owe this illness my life, it taught me how to enjoy being me. As I wrote, and came to embrace the illness as part of me – not some alien invader – I began to relish the process of painting it out in all of its hypnotic fire and ragged glory.
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The writer of this blog is not a mental health practitioner. Information in the blog is of a general nature and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The advice of a qualified health professional should be sought for any questions regarding a medical condition.