THE POWER OF THE CAP

Mimi Schwartz


I used to drive defensively through thirty miles of back roads on my way to work. In a land of pick-up trucks and long-finned, rusty Cadillacs, if I overtook, or tailgated, or flicked my brights too often, I could get the finger. Or an angry male might speed up, so I couldn't pass in time to avoid an oncoming car without braking hard into retreat--or heading for the graveled shoulder. 

Those incidents are now 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 grey and white striped railroad cap, which I bought from a cart 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 Volvo'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, red-headed, 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 set jaw, staring straight ahead, and I hear their mind clicking. Maybe she or he's a cop, or a nut with a 45. They behave themselves. 

Last week, 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 middle finger and I reached for my cap. I saw his eyes widen in that same mirror. 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. 

The next day 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 whoever 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 to 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. 

Then yesterday my husband and I were driving north for a week, into the sun. He had on his blue cap with a straight brim and chewed a toothpick, as if he were a New Hampshire woodsman. I had on an impish straw hat, imagining myself as Huck Finn, who was floating down the river on the audio tape 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 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. 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. 
 



Mimi Schwartz's essays have appeared in The Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, The New York Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. She won the 1999 Florida Review Editor's Award in creative nonfiction and was runner-up for the 1999 Heekin Prize.

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