Life in 128 Bits

As aimless and pointless as it may seem, driving in circles helps me to clear my head. Late one evening in July, I took one such drive through San Francisco, only to find myself in a strange situation.

The moment I got to Harrison, I decided I'd drive all the way to the pier, then begin a small, counter-clockwise loop. I sailed up the Embarcadero, made a left onto Mission, then drove all the way to first street, then back around onto Harrison. From there, I swerved back onto the Lincoln Highway and took the path again and again.

It was a warm night. A light breeze flitted in through the crack in the window and teased my hair as I drove. The Giants had pulled an improbable victory from the jaws of defeat just one hour earlier, and their fans ambled across the wide crosswalks, yelling, swishing past bumpers and climbing over car hoods to get to the next drink. I craved something cold. I wished I could order something from a side cart, but I just needed to keep driving.

I had much to ponder. I let my eyes wander over the vast crowds - the hyper kids, the pumped fans, the coiffed sex machines, the homeless fixtures, the strolling hipsters. As the night wore on, the streets I traversed started to feel like they belonged to me. I alone gave the streets the attention they lacked. I wasn't just using them to get from one place to another; I revisited their potholes and peculiarities like an old friend. 

As if my state of mind had not already begun to unravel, something even stranger started to happen. The crowds thinned out and then disappeared. I thought there might be disaster taking place in the city, and that everyone had evacuated except for me, going around in my stupid loop. I went to stick my head out the window and noticed that the windows were all sealed shut. Had I done that? I tried rolling them down, but the electrical charge must have shorted out.

I turned the radio on for news of a disaster, or something that would have cleared the streets, but no matter how far I adjusted the dial, I heard only static. Lightening flashed in the corner of my eye. Then again, but it was no explosion. It was right on my windshield, a light flickering, and bursts of static on the glass itself. 

The streets outside of the car, all around me, looked... odd. I adjusted my glasses and peered around. Something was not right. The streets looked jagged and distant, like a painting or a movie. Dull brown, swamp green and purple colors were smeared all over everything. I stopped the car and tried to get out, but the handle, like the windows, would not budge. 

A voice spoke on the radio.

"Welcome, metropolis street racer!" he announced. "I got some great tunes comin' up for ya in just a moment." A jaunty, smooth jazz song began to play.

I smashed my fist against the glass. It didn't break or crack. I pulled my hand away, wincing. I climbed up over the driver's seat and gazed out the back windshield. My car's interior hadn't changed, but it looked like my vehicle had been placed in a box, and on the inner walls of that box, an impressionist view of the street had been painted on. I saw street lamps and reflections in the street, and a hazy sky beyond, but no people. No movement, save for the flashing of street lights and walk signals. It was like someone had taken photographs of the skyline and then sampled and re-sampled them in low-res, downgrading color and depth until it was a blurry mess.

"What... the hell?" I cursed aloud. I climbed back into the driver's seat and tried to wrench the door handle open. It came off in my hands. The smooth jazz song ended and a country western song began.

It's a Long Long Road to nowhere when you're travelling alone...."

I pushed the accelerator violently, expecting to smash through a wall, but the impressionistic street-scape moved with me. I felt like I was in one of those driver's ed simulators, only surrounded by murky, sparse depictions of the city I loved outside the windows. I slapped myself to try and wake, but it only made the music louder. I smashed at the glass a few more times before finally accepting I had no way out.

I considered turning back onto Mission from the Embarcadero (the swamp green street sign, propped up by a polygonal pole, read MTSSIOON in a barely readable smear. I decided to continue northwest along the Highway.. Unfortunately, I didn't notice the barriers until it was too late. The whole vehicle lurched and stopped in front of a long barrier wall painted with colored stripes. I backed up the car - noticing that the noise of my engine was curiously far away - and tried slipping in between two barriers. No luck. It was if an invisible wall hung in the air. The momentum of the impact, for me, was soft, like hitting giant marshmallows.

Defeated, I turned back up Mission and began scanning for exits. Barriers were placed everywhere, preventing me from turning onto any road except for the stretch of first street I'd already driven. The country western song ended, and a bright pop song intervened. I didn't know which was worse - that I was trapped in a strange dimension or that I was forced to listen to that music.

As I headed up Harrison, I spied the silhouette of the Bay Bridge in the brown and purple air. It looked like a giant IMAX screen far off in the distance, covered in a Claude Monet interpretation of the bridge. The smeared blues of the bay struck me as oddly beautiful. The facades of the houses I drove by were all curiously flat, but sharply defined.

In the real world, there were sharper lines and blacks and shadows and brilliant colors and depth, yes, but here, everything was reduced to a basic idea. People were gone. Even the gradation of light glowing from the digital lamp poles was unnatural and muted. There was only the road I was allowed to take. It was simpler somehow, comforting.

I downshifted and headed back along the pier-side, and a bizarre idea struck me. Maybe if I clocked in enough miles taking my loop there, in the virtual space, I'd be spit back out into the world. I could smash my virtual car against countless barriers or smash my fists into a bloody pulp trying to escape, or I could go with the flow. I could simple do what I'd been doing, and hope for the best.

So I drove. For hours, I drove. I forgot about the real world after a time, the world with its strutting, ambling personalities, with its unexpected twists and turns, it's visceral blows. It was a dull sensation when my car slowed as it touched a barrier, or took a turn too quickly and spun out. I was never in any danger. I memorized the textures along every road, and the loop became a steady rhythm of straightaway, turn, straightaway, turn. I finessed those turns until they became second nature. Every so often, a seam in the sky would open up and cast that sharp glare of static down on me, and I'd gaze up and see it, a digital crack in the sky. It would then blink out as suddenly as it had arrived.

As I danced over the road and watched the flickering lines pass on either side of me, I thought over things I'd never taken time to parse. I thought on relationships and love affairs I'd had. I thought about God, or my ideas of God over the years. I considered the vast scope in the universe and how lucky I'd been to know the people I'd known. Did we all know how lucky we were to share space, to have access to one another's thoughts, even if just for the briefest of moments? I thought about regret and how much I would miss the bright light of the natural, noonday sun on my face.

After I deftly avoided hitting a median barrier covered in low res, polygonal trees, and barreled past it trimphantly, it was clear I'd mastered the loop. I was ready to go home. Only, the world didn't come back at me as I expected, like the unveiling of a video screen to reveal the gorgeous depth and color of the earth. No, I blinked my eyes and saw a mess of blankets and a bright, sun slants on the bed, and yellow wallpaper. I had woken up.


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