Unsafe At Any Speed


Michael Guinzburg

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 107 in 2004.

The man running down Washington Street on the lower west side of Manhattan was not young. And he was not in shape. But he was desperate and he was running fast. That is, he was running fast until he tripped over an upraised crack in the sidewalk and took a header onto the concrete. I helped him to his feet. His glasses were broken, his knee was bleeding, but he still wanted to run. He looked over his shoulder wildly and said. "Hide me quick." "Okay," I said, and pulled him into a doorway. The doorway led to a bar, a quiet dark bar, and I sat him down and bought him a whiskey and listened to him ramble.

"Did you see the car that was chasing me? It was electric!" He laughed insanely. "How perfectly appropriate... An electric car!" He looked me in the eye. "I don't have long. Will you promise me one thing?"

"Sure," I said.

"Okay," he said. "I have to tell you a story and you have to promise to write it out and send it to everyone on the internet. A chain letter."

"Okay," I said, "but I'm not a writer."

"We have to stop him! He's insane, he's dangerous, and we have to stop him."

"Stop who?"

"Ralph, Ralph Nader."

"The guy who's running for president? The consumer guy?"

"Yes, he's insane, and I ought to know. I was his therapist."

"What about confidentiality?" I asked.

"He's too dangerous and the story must be told." The man ducked under a table as a car passed slowly outside the window.

"Don't worry," I said.

"A hybrid?"

"No," I assured him, "it was an '87 Ford, a gas guzzler."

Ralph Nader's shrink came up from under the table, finished his drink, signaled for another, and told me his story. It seems that Ralph Nader was a brilliant boy but very troubled by his name -- Nader sounded like "nadir" and since the word nadir means "the lowest point, " this engendered a horrible sense of ironic self-esteem in the boy. So young Ralph, troubled by his gawky looks and uncomfortable with his name, turned inward and formed his own philosophy which very simply put was this: "Don't get stuck with a lemon." A lemon, as in a lousy name or a lousy car or washing machine or food product. And that was the epiphany that launched Ralph Nader. His subsequent campaign against defective products might well win him a Nobel Prize some day. Worldly glories did nothing to assuage his agony over his defective name, but he sure did make the anger and bitterness work for him. When he took on the Corvair car he made headlines, and he changed the way people lived. So something very good had risen from his nadir of self-esteem.

"That's really interesting", I said, "but what does that have to do with electric cars?"

"I will tell you," said the man, looking me in my eyes.

"I must have failed with Ralphie. I tried to make him love himself and love his name, but he had his lemon complex and he also found that he took intense pleasure in ruining good things for people. He is a pessimist and his philosophy is, things have to get worse before they get any better. So he entered the last Presidential election and he helped defeat Gore so that Bush could get in the driver's seat and really mess things up. Only when the world was really messed up, he knew, would he have a chance to fix things. So Bush won and Bush understood that he had an ally. I, of course, refused to treat him anymore -- not for political reasons -- but because I had so utterly failed him. But just last week he called me. He said he needed to talk. And when I got to his house he led me to a huge underground bunker, outfitted with TVs and stereos and all sorts of kitchen equipment -- all the latest and greatest. And then he took me into a room, and there was a teenaged boy there -- perhaps he was 18, maybe not, but the boy was naked, in a cherry red Corvair. And Ralph kissed the boy and had anal sex with him, all the while saying, "Nadir the nadir the nadir, I will defeat the Democrats again and Shrubbie will win." And then a Domino's Pizza showed up and he and the boy ate the pizza and drank Coors light from a can. And Ralph showed me a letter from George Bush the elder, and one from Barbara, thanking him for his help getting their son elected, and telling him that the money had been transferred to his Swiss bank account. And Ralph handed me a gun and said: "Kill me now or I will have to cash another check. Help me. End this misery for me and for the nation. Because if I run, it will be four more years of Bush. Push push in the Bush." And he went at the young boy, begging me to shoot him while in the throes of his agony and ecstasy and I couldn't do it, I couldn't and I ran from there, and I have been running since and his people are following me and they're in electric cars and...."

"Calm down," I said. "You've had a bad day and a bad fantasy and it will be okay."

"No," he said. "If Ralph runs, we get four more years of Bush."

The bartender was closing up and we had to go. The man did not want to leave, but I assured him I would get him to a hotel. We stood on the corner waiting for a taxi. I never heard the electric car as it came from behind us on the sidewalk. Silently, it very skillfully plowed into the man who claimed to be Ralph Nader's shrink, missing me, and then disappeared around the corner. Well, I waited for the cops and they came and I couldn't tell them who the dead man was and sure wasn't going to repeat his mad story, but when I got home, I remembered my promise and I wrote it out and this is what you've read. Maybe the man really was who he claimed. I don't know and I really don't care. I don't vote. But I really wish I'd noticed what kind of car it was that mowed him down, because it sure was quiet and it sure ran well. I know Ralph Nader would have approved.