I used to drive defensively on the back roads to work. In rural South Jersey, with its pickup trucks and long-finned Cadillacs, if you are a woman who overtakes, tailgates, or flicks her brights on and off too often, you can get the finger. Or an angry male might speed up, so you can't pass in time to avoid an oncoming car without braking hard into retreat--or heading for the graveled shoulder.
But that is old history. I drive the way I please and no one bothers me—because of my caboose cap. That's what is written above the tiny, red caboose on the brim of my gray-striped railroad cap that I bought from a cart at Penn Station in New York City. In it I become someone who stokes hot engines in a passing world.
It had been lying on the car floor, waiting for one of my sudden solitary walks, when my brand-new Honda's sun visor broke off for the third time. I put the cap on to shield my eyes from the glare and bingo!—the sun disappeared, much better than with sunglasses. But, oh, what other perks this cap has had! No more middle fingers and no high-speed bullying of a freckle-faced, reddish-haired, middle-aged woman, who was supposed to make men feel macho on the open road. Now they don't know what to expect. They see a driver (a woman?) with a crazy cap and a set jaw, staring straight ahead, and I hear their mind clicking. Maybe she, or he, is a cop--or a nut with a 45. They behave themselves.
One day I was driving nearer home, capless, and a guy stopped short on a busy road to let someone enter from a driveway. I nearly rear-ended him and a white van nearly rear-ended me, so I threw up my hands in disgust, which he saw in his mirror. He raised his fist and I reached for my cap. I pictured his eyes widening in that same mirror. Then he fiddled with his radio; he slumped an inch lower; he turned at the next corner. I don't think he lived on that block.
Another time I took a wrong turn off the New Jersey Turnpike and landed on an endless block of abandoned buildings lined with huge, parked trucks. I slumped down, afraid to ask anyone I could find for directions—until I remembered my cap. I donned it, tipping it slightly upwards above dark sunglasses, opened my window, and hailed the first guy I saw: "Hey, where's Exit 13a?"
"Go left two lights, then right," he yelled, "then left again at the fork." He had on a red cap turned backwards, with a black strap like a clothesline across his forehead. Punk or good guy? Only a smile would tell, and his was broad as he pointed towards a blinking light in the distance. Five minutes later, I was asking again, this time of two guys having a smoke on a loading dock.
"Which way to the turnpike?" I called, cocky as a truck driver. My voice was lost in the rev of a diesel engine. "Which way? The turnpike?" No response. No one else was around, so I had to get out, cross the street, get close. Not a problem when you're in a caboose cap above a loden green cape that looks like an Army tent on the move. They stood up quickly, snuffed out their cigarettes, and sent me two blocks right and one left. Within minutes I was on the turnpike, flying along with my cap back on the floor because it was a cloudy day and I liked how the breeze let my hair fly wild.
Yesterday my husband Stu and I were driving north to North Hampshire, into the sun. He, the engineering professor, had on his blue cap with a straight brim and chewed a toothpick as if he were a New England woodsman. I had on an impish straw hat, imagining myself as Huck Finn, who was floating down the river on the audiotape that I'd taken out of the library. I was easy, open to adventure, as a double-hitched Seltzer truck passed on my right. A muscular, curly-haired driver, cute, was looking down at my skirt hiked high on my thighs. A dragon tattoo climbed the inside of his arm, which was resting on his open window above me. He winked, honked, and sped up, heading for the middle lane. He raised his fist, which turned into a V for victory. My husband honked. He would not be cut off. A battle was brewing—would-be woodsman vs. dragon man—and I reached for my caboose cap, just in case.
* "The Power of the Cap" first appeared in Brevity and also is part of Thoughts from a Queen-sized Bed, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
322 Review is a journal that publishes provocative emerging and established artists. Operated by Rowan University graduate students enrolled in the Master of Arts in Writing Program, 322 Review is aggressively seeking the best fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, mixed genre, and mixed media works of visual art.
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