This past Monday was the third anniversary of my cousin Jim Houston's passing, and to do something about the mood this put me in (generally down, and on a Monday to boot), I went to my Jim Houston Library (bottom shelf, bookcase in the den) and pulled out Gasoline, Jim's collection of Charlie Bates stories. The collection I have was put together by Capra Press of Santa Barbara in 1980, and my volume was signed by Jim in 1986. All of the stories are terrific, written in Jim's distinctive laconic, simple, flowing prose, which has a way of disguising the penetrating intelligence behind the beguiling language.
I chose "Gas Mask," just for old times' sake, and because it was the first story Jim ever talked to me about personally, as he was writing it in 1964 (he was thirty years old at the time; I was fifteen). It was a summer get-together at his parents' place in Saratoga. Jim's mother, Loretta, had made her trademark lemonade with grapefruit-sized lemons fresh from her own orchard. It remains to this day the best beverage I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. I asked Jim what he was working on, and he told me it was a story about a guy, Charlie Bates, his Everyman lost in an increasingly confusing and deranged technological wonderland, who is driving home one day on an elevated freeway (it sounds, in the story, like Los Angeles) when the traffic comes to a complete stop. Charlie feels the pressure of a car pushing against the back of his Volkswagen Bug. And the drivers, including Charlie, are then stranded with their automobiles in total, city-wide gridlock. After a while a helicopter appears overhead and moves down the road, announcing that traffic is blocked and that it will take at least twenty-four hours to clear.
"He was on a high, curving overpass that looked down on a lower overpass and farther down onto a twelve lane straightaway that led to the city's center. As far as Charlie could see in any direction cars were jammed end to end, lane to lane, and nothing moved. The pushing had stopped. Evidently there was nowhere else to push."
Charlie strikes up a conversation with Arvin Bainbridge, who is in the car adjacent to his driver's side door. This is the only other driver identified in the story, adding to the mood of alienation and anomie: there are thousands of stranded motorists on this nightmare-scape of roadways, but all are essentially alone and isolated within their steel vehicles. Where Charlie is different (in each story of the collection, actually) from those he finds in his shared predicament, he improvises in the face of these man-made, hostile environments. He borrows a tow rope from Arvin, ties it to the railing, and goes hand over hand to the freeway level below. From there he can climb into the top of a tall tree and shinny his way, at last, to terra firma. He then walks several miles home to his wife Fay.
Charlie discusses the situation with Fay and a decision is made to borrow a friend's two-seater bicycle and ride back to the freeway. Eventually they take an elevator to the top of an apartment building with a view of the freeway, where Charlie can use high-powered binoculars to keep an eye on the Volkswagen. Charlie follows the loops and curlicues of the freeway and realizes there is a way, using onramps and the median strip, to get back to his car on foot. Meanwhile, the helicopters announce that the gridlock is likely to remain for thirty-six more hours, two more days, three more days. Fay and Charlie then discover there is an apartment for rent in the building they have used for the roof-top view of the freeway. They take the apartment and then divide "watches" into four-hour shifts.
A helicopter lowers a portable toilet onto the freeway, and a long line of stranded motorists wait their turn. Through the binoculars, Charlie sees a woman enter the toilet and close the door. He tells Fay,
"A woman just opened the door and stepped inside."
"What if the cars start moving while she's in there, Charlie? That's what I'd be worried about."
"It's a risk, all right, one of those risks a person just has to take."
Charlie begins frequent jogs to his car, leaving his bike at the foot of the onramp. He talks things over with Arvin Bainbridge, who tells Charlie things on the freeway are "bout the same." It's hot out on the asphalt during the day, and uncomfortable to sleep in the car at night, but Arvin tells Charlie that "you get used to it." He compliments Charlie on his improving time in getting to and from the Volkswagen. Charlie's been clocking himself, and Arvin asks for the time. Charlie tells him. Arvin is impressed: "Cuttin her down, hey boy." Charlie suggests that Arvin come to the apartment, have dinner, a drink, take a shower. Arvin mulls it over. He's still making payments on his car, he muses. Finally he tells Charlie that he "just can't." Arvin wants to be there when the cars start to move again. Charlie tells him that he understands.
And so the story ends, Charlie and Fay in their eagle's nest vantage point, the cars permanently gridlocked, the drivers in the stranded vehicles hollow-eyed, grimy, in wrinkled clothes, wraiths scattered along an endless terrain of asphalt. "Gas Mask" cannot have a happy ending, because the madness will obviously continue whether or not the cars ever start moving again or not. We leave Charlie in an army surplus store, buying a gas mask to help him deal with the eye-stinging, suffocating pollution he encounters during the times he spends on the freeway with his car, as the motorists periodically fire up their engines in anticipation that perhaps this is the Moment of Movement, a hope which spreads virally from car to car like an urban legend.
I've always considered this story a largely unrecognized miracle of dystopian satire. I think it is brilliant in its spare, matter-of-fact depiction of the insane accommodation of oppressive, inhuman (even anti-human) technology in the lives of ordinary modern people. It was written by a young man of prodigious talents (in so many arts) who looked on the world with wry bemusement, who understood, deep in his calm soul, that nothing can change the course of progress, that all we will ever do is make seemingly sane adaptations to a thoroughly mad artificial environment, and take the "necessary" risks involved, such as using a toilet on an elevated freeway in the middle of The Traffic Jam at the End of the World, without ever once asking ourselves how we created such a monstrosity in the first place, or what human purposes it serves.