Between home and work, those huge digital matrix signs loom over the interstate, the ones intended to keep you abreast of traffic situations. But, except during snowstorms, there are no real traffic situations between home and work. It’s not that kind of town. So, instead, the signs display helpful messages and driving tips. Usually somewhere between self-righteously bossy (“Texting and Driving Don’t Mix”) and winkingly practical (“DUI Patrols Tonight”), lately the DOT has turned more philosophical. The other day, all over the state, the signs asked, “Are You Mindful of the Other Driver?”
It is the word “mindful” that seems out of place in square letters above the interstate. I am used to the DOT being concerned about my driving habits and even about the more physiological aspects of my mental state (who doesn’t like rest stops with free coffee?), but this seems to enter another kind of territory, a territory that is normally the domain of poets and pastors (and—on a side note—of Dinty W. Moore’s new book). I’m not used to hearing about such existential stuff from the lower levels of state bureaucracy. Not that I mind. In fact, I kind of like the idea that they might have more to say than “Merge Left in 1500 Feet.”
But that “mindful” and the abstract “other.” The word choice suggests authorship in a venue that is normally dominated by anonymity. This is not, I think, language that could be produced by machine or by government committee. This language was created, composed. So, reading it, driving beneath this message, I imagine the DOT copywriter in his cubicle, the perfunctory fabric walls, the smell of canned air.
On his breaks, he walks outside. It is spring now. New grass is coming up around the ponderosas. He shuffles his feet, kicks at a cone half-buried. He carries a paperback in his right hand, his thumb holding the place. This week Pedro Páramo, last week that Annie Dillard book, slim volumes that feel to him more like companions. He also keeps a book of poems in the top drawer of his desk, and he steals moments with them between memos and newsletters. He has recently discovered Dana Levin and thinks he might be in love.
The DOT office is in an office park off the highway, so the cars zing past. Most of them don’t notice the little building, one-story with large tinted windows that the copywriter cannot see from his cubicle, buried among the other cubicles. Most of the drivers do not notice him walking there, paperback held loosely between his fingers. But he stops to watch them.
Unless they merge onto 184, they will see one of his signs 2.4 miles ahead. Today, they will see his “Are You Mindful” message, his favorite, the first one he created and the only one he’s created that has gone into the state DOT’s permanent Dynamic Message Sign (DMS) message library. He thinks of this as his opportunity to shape society in his small way: his words, present, glowing above the flow of traffic, sliding easily into the eyes and, thus, the minds of 64,372 commuters each day, on average (based on the December 2010 report; he did the math himself). More on weekdays, fewer on weekends.
Watching the cars pass, he tries to notice each passing motorist. The traffic is light in late morning, so he almost can. The woman in the new Hyundai, probably his own mother’s age, hands at ten and two, sitting up straight so her hair doesn’t press against the headrest and deform. The man in the wax-sheen 4-ton pickup, broad shoulders and short hair: a contractor, he thinks, not a laborer. The girl in the early-90s Honda Civic, a carseat in the back, too young and pretty to have planned for that. These are his audience, his readers, and they are legion. It is a kind of power. More people will read his words today than will read Dana Levin: 64, 372 readers. And that’s vehicles; it doesn’t account for passengers. How many people will read Annie Dillard today? How many people will read Rulfo? Shakespeare? 64, 372 people will read him. Every day he has something to tell them, and every day they hear it.
He thinks of the sign past the 184 exit as his sign because the control box is in his cubicle. For the most part, each sign is controlled locally—normally by a sheriff’s dispatcher, but since this sign is so close to the main DOT offices, the duty defaults to him.
His fifteen-minute break is nearly over, so he dog ears the page in Rulfo and tucks it into his back pocket. He thinks he’ll steal another moment with Levin before writing the weekly road status update, a press release that no one in the press actually reads. If his supervisor were to catch him reading poems on the clock, he has decided he will explain that it is vocationally necessary. He will explain that, since he is a copywriter (a writer, really), he must keep language in his mind. If he does not keep the language fresh, he won’t be able to do his job well. His supervisor is the kind of person who believes in things like inspiration, and she already sees him as a creative type, so he thinks she’ll buy it. And, anyway, he hopes not to be at this job for long.
He fantasizes about his last day on the job, about how he will sign off. He’ll need to leave his readers with something larger than the normal fare. For some among his 64, 372, his words are the only thing they’ll read that day. He’ll need to leave them with something substantial. Like that line from Howard Nemerov: “The world is full of mostly invisible things,/ And there is no way but putting the mind’s eye,/ Or its nose, in a book, to find them out”
But that’s a bit pedantic, and it won’t fit on the sign.
Maybe this one, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, “And, for all this, nature is never spent”—But that’s too topical. Or, “For Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his”
Or this one he just read in Levin: “I know,/ I’m tired of the battle too”
It is his duty, he thinks, not sacred but nearly so, to reach into their lives for an instant, to remind them that, for better or worse, they are not alone.