Left turns can be tricky, especially if—like me—you’re a horrific (or in my case, unlicensed) driver. In 1947, a New York City bus driver named William Cimillo made a left turn more consequential than most. Instead of turning right to begin his route, he turned left. And he kept driving. He drove his bus from New York to Hollywood, Florida, just north of Miami—a distance of 1,300 miles.
In Florida, he was arrested, and brought back to New York along with the bus that police said he stole. But he returned a folk hero. The bus pulled up to a police station in Manhattan to find hundreds of people gathering there, celebrating Cimillo’s felonious jaunt.
This week’s This American Life shares three stories about what it means to take a leap into the unknown. The first revisits Cimillo’s story. Producer Joe Richman interviews Cimillo’s two sons, Richard and Dennis. Their voices are uncannily similar: both intone in gravelly New York accents. But the two men have startlingly different views on their father’s illicit excursion to Florida. Richard was 12 at the time, and he remembers his mother crying when Cimillo didn’t come home. Cimillo was gone for three days on his impromptu holiday, and he never called. Richard assumed his father was dead.
Dennis was an infant when his father disappeared. He doesn’t remember his family’s anxiety. Instead, he admires his father’s free-spirited nature.
There’s something undeniably romantic about leaving one’s regimented route—literally—and driving off course. Cimillo’s holiday evokes fantasies of a life without attachments. The incident strikes me as in some respects a distinctively American fantasy: the vast expanse of open road; the individualist attitude that permits a man to leave everyone—his wife, his children, his passengers waiting at their stops—behind. But it’s not just Americans who live in highly regulated societies and who work monotonous, repetitive jobs. It would be interesting to learn whether Cimillo’s story—stirring for Americans in 1947, and resonant still for listeners today—holds broader cultural appeal.
Cimillo was absent from his ordinary life, with its work and responsibilities, for three days. The temporary nature of his absence was, I think, what allowed the public to valorize him. Never mind that his vacation was put to an end not by choice but by police intervention: we don’t know how long he would have stayed in Florida had he not been arrested. If he had abandoned his family entirely, would people still have admired him? Cimillo’s story is only appealing, I think, because of the short duration of his absence—and not only because the brevity of his vacation mitigated the harm he caused his family. The short duration of his time away is crucial because the fantasy of rootlessness is ultimately unsatisfying. Our attachments, especially to other people, can be hard work, but they are also sources of joy; they constrain us, but they also enrich our lives. We fantasize about taking a leap that cuts our ties, but we don’t actually want to. What we desire instead is the knowledge that we could take such a leap if we chose to. We don’t want detachment so much as we want autonomy.
The episode’s second segment takes wing from an unusual Pew finding: that 9 percent of Americans want to travel through time. Producers Jonathan Goldstein and Sean Cole present debates about traveling through the past vs. through the future: most of their interview subjects would opt to travel backward, rather than forward, through time. Subjects discuss whether they would try to change history through time travel or simply improve their own lives. And in the segment’s most memorable bit, which takes place at a senior citizens’ center in Brooklyn, they tackle the question of why elderly people are less likely to be seduced by time travel.
The episode’s final segment introduces us to Tina Dupuy, an op-ed columnist and political commentator. Long ago, Dupuy was a child alcoholic. She got sober at age 13, and became “AA famous” for speaking at Alcoholics Anonymous conferences. Her alcoholism was indispensable to her understanding of who she was. At 33, she’d been sober for 20 years.
There was just one problem: it turns out she might not be an alcoholic after all. Did her problems as a child stem from alcohol? Or from her parents joining a cult and, especially, her toxic relationship with her mother?
Dupuy’s leap—so it seems–is to drink a glass of wine with her husband and see what happens. The result is anticlimactic. She doesn’t get drunk. She feels sleepy and goes to bed. From then on, she becomes a light but punctilious drinker, with little desire to down more than two drinks at a sitting.
The important leap Dupuy takes, I think, is not the act of drinking wine. Instead, the leap was a gradual process of adjusting her sense of self. She alters the terms she uses to describe herself. She no longer derives her identity from being an alcoholic. The drink she takes with her husband merely confirms the validity of this identity shift. Changes in how we understand ourselves do not seem as extreme as commandeering a bus or traveling through time. Yet casting aside an old identity is, for some of us, one of the most significant jumps we can take into the unknown.
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