My grandfather was a slow driver. A very slow driver. Trips from his apartment in the Bronx back to my family’s house upstate, a distance of 100 miles, took three hours minimum. He crept along in his ’66 Pontiac Bonneville at forty mph, slowing down to thirty every ten minutes to light another cigarette. And this was on the divided highways part of the trip. Trucks blew past us as if powered by rockets. Old ladies, too, in their older model cars, dashed right by. The old-lady drivers didn’t display toward us the nobly professional indifference of the truck drivers. They honked their horns at my grandfather and glared at him as they passed, infuriated, I sensed, to discover that the slowpoke in the right lane wasn’t an even older lady, therefore to be forgiven as the harbinger of their own futures. Neither the expressions of fear and trembling from his grandchildren in the back seat nor the scorn of the old ladies impelled my grandfather to pick up his pace. His measure of speed was still his first car, a Chevy Standard Six from the 1930s which, so I was told by my mother, shook and rattled as it edged close to forty five. He was going fast enough for anyone, he would say, and was content that the bolts weren’t going to fly off the Bonneville as he drove up to the mountains.
But it was more than a sense of his own pace that gave my grandfather the strange courage to drive so erratically . My grandfather was an ex-Communist and, although his activist commitments had faded by the late 1950s, he never let go of the invaluable intellectual gift the Party had given him, namely a political theory of everything. This included a theory of speed. In his ken, “speed” was only half a word, the full and proper use of which was as part of “speed-up.” And to my grandfather’s ears, “speed-up” was first and foremost an imperative: he always heard it as uttered in a boss’s voice. My step-grandmother, also an ex-Communist, knew that a direct request to my grandfather to speed anything along was useless. To get him to finish a task he’d gotten distracted from she would say “Abe…” in a suggestive yet authoritatively wifely tone that made him think the voice was coming from inside his own head. There was something paradoxical in my grandfather’s political-resistance theory of speed. On one hand, since he didn’t pause to reflect even for a moment before refusing to go faster, you might say he never slowed down to think. On the other, since thinking too fast armored him immoderately—recklessly—against the world’s demands to pick up his pace, it was also my grandfather’s way of being a slowpoke.
My grandfather’s mulishness lives on in me. Fifty years later, I still hear every suggestion to speed it up as a demand to submit to an alien measure of achievement. But the meaning of this attitude has shifted over the years. I no longer hear “speed-up” spoken in the voice of a capitalist, which means my resistance to it has ceased to wear its politics on its face, has ceased, perhaps, to be political at all. For me—and I think I am not alone in this—the demand for speed is invested with the force of an abstract cultural authority. In other words, it lives in the realm of thought from the start. Speed has become an idea, in the Platonic sense; it is a form, a meaning, expressed in uncountably many social practices. For this reason, thinking too fast, being equipped with a theory of speed, is no longer helpful in slowing down. Stripped of its place in a political theory of everything, it is nothing but dogmatism. I could, I guess, try to adopt my grandfather’s practice instead of his theory and simply go for a ride. That, though, would require being able to experience machinery in a subjunctive mood, a piece of the utopian communist thought that my grandfather did not pass down to me that we might yet rule machines. So the question remains for me open and maybe unanswerable: how can one now cultivate pokiness? And without cultivating it, how can one resist the speed-up? Solidarity among slowpokes must be strived for. But not too fast.