Monday, December 15, 2008

Traffic Etiquette

Okay, I admit, this is going to be a bit of a rant, but I think it's one you'll want to rant along with me. Along with the festive holiday season, there is always festive holiday traffic, and it seems to bring out the worst in drivers despite the spirit of the season. Compound the holiday rush with icy roads and traffic-snarling accidents caused by the combination of the two, and you begin to understand why people suffer from road rage. Embracing my newly recognized Southerness, I am trying to embrace a zen-like acceptance as I sit staring at the same taillights, listening to favorite songs that are beginning to get old on my iPod. Zen is not an easy state to achieve, though. And I blame Sparky, Righty, Speedy, and Scavenger.
If we could all just accept that we're in this together, apply the golden rule, and be patient I think never ending traffic would not just be more tolerable, but there would be a little less of it. But what really irritates me is when you try to do unto others, only to find still others taking advantage--namely the aforementioned four. I know you know them, but let me be polite and introduce you properly as we review four breaches of traffic etiquette.
1. Blocking the Box - So, you're crawling along, a car length every three minutes, and finally can glimpse the anticipated traffic light where you plan to take a right onto the main road. There are maybe five cars ahead of you and you watchi in anticipation as the light turns green. But you don't move. Okay, you think, it takes a moment to clear the intersection. A minute goes by, you crane your neck, still no movement. Now it's yellow. Not even a little roll forward. And it's red again, and you at last inch half a car length forward. Repeat sequence. Repeat again. Now there's just two cars in front of you and you can see what's happening. The oncoming traffic is crawling along. Their light turns yellow, they keep moving despite the fact that the traffic ahead has stopped. Their light turns red with one car blocking half the intersection, stuck at the end of a frozen line of cars stretching as far as the eye can see. Now Sparky at the light to your left decides she has waited long enough and if she can get over that thick white line right after the light turns, she hasn't gone through it. Sparky couldn't possibly slam on the brakes at half a mile an hour on these icy roads. So she moves into the intersection, completing the wall of cars running perpendicularly to you. Naturally, the carefully timed lights all along your destination road have turned red. So there you are, at your green light with nowhere to go. The light turns yellow, and the frustrated car two ahead of you rolls halfway into the intersection. As your light turns red, Sparky rolls merrily forward, and your leader crams herself behind. One small victory for your road. Now you know why it has taken 20 minutes to go 1/4 of a mile. Etiquette Lesson: If there is not a physical space for your car on the other side of the intersection, you wait at the light, whether it is green, yellow, red, or purple! In New York city, it's a law--should be national.

2. Taking Turns - So, while you're waiting at the interminable light, a car coming along the blissfully clear opposite lane stops and indicates that he would like to take a left turn in front of you to the cross street street to your right. Being a polite driver, and having no rush to speed along the whopping (but hard-earned) two car lengths between you and the bumper you've been staring at, you press down on the brake, smile at Lefty, and wave him across. He gives a grateful wave, and scoots happily by you. You feel a little good that at least someone is getting somewhere. But you weren't paying attention to Righty, the car to your right who has now wedged his car into the line ahead of you as Lefty was making his move. Well, you think, looking at the two Rightys behind him, taking turns is reasonable, even if I've been waiting twenty minutes, and he's been waiting two. But wait, what's this? Righty #2 is tailgating, shoving into line right behind Righty #1. It's a fundamental traffic rule of etiquette--every other car. If everyone observes this, it all works more efficiently.

3. The Merging Lane - So, at last you have made it to the main road and reached the pinnacle of the traffic snarl--the highway exit ramp where four lanes of cars have come to a near standstill, and about half seem to have given up and are abandoning the fast lane for your lane. You eventually find yourself next to the merging lane, and following the taking turns rule, you allow the car nearest you in front. You creep forward, and creep forward some more. Maybe you even let a second car in. You've all sped up to a relatively rapid two miles an hour now. Though the lane to your right is oh-so-temptingly clear, you know that lane ends ahead. At least you're finally moving. But wait--you've stopped again. You're waiting. Waiting. Still not moving. Waiting. Flipping the radio station. Waiting. Watching the guy in the car next to you--is he talking to himself, or does he have one of those little earpieces? Waiting.... And then along comes Speedy. Speedy is briskly rolling along that clear merging lane to your right. He is going to get as far along as possible before indicating, while all his fellow highwaymen (and -women) have politely merged as soon as possible to share your lot. You do not want to let Speedy in. Speedy should have to sit and wait as long as it takes you (and everyone else) to get to that point. Say, about ten minutes. If it weren't for Speedy and his brethren, it would only take you five minutes to get to where he is. Speddy stole your consistent two-mile-an-hour pace! "Don't let him in!" you yell (as the guy beside you tries to figure out if you're talking to yourself, or on one of those earpiece things). But, of course, Good Samaritan is twenty car lengths ahead and can't hear you. He lets Speedy in almost immediately. So you bare your teeth as the Speedys zip past. Traffic etiquette rule #3: just because the lane is clear, doesn't mean you should use it to the inconvenience of dozens of others.

4. Parking Space Lotto - So, you've made it to the mall parking garage at last, and find yourself scanning for shoppers heading for their cars. But, of course, there are parking predators everywhere, and you soon find yourself slowly easing along behind two other cars. At least there's only one lane up, and one lane down, so all you have to do is bide your time, and keep easing into the bowels of the garage. The third free space will be mine, you think. That's not so bad, after all the traffic. Car #1 gets lucky, and spots a a pair of taillights just as she's about to pass. She slams on her brakes, backs up immediately without looking, then indicates to claim her territory. You stop, glance in the rearview at the line of cars behind you who luckily didn't rear end you, and wait patiently as the shopper backs efficiently out of the space so Car #1 can park. Now I'm second in line, you think gleefully. I've almost made it! Not only that, but while you were waiting, another shopper has returned to her car, kids in tow, and Car #2 (just in front of you) moves briskly forward and flips on his blinker. The Mom puts the bags away, secures the kids in the backseat, returns to the trunk for something, digs lint out of her purse for awhile. You sigh, but take solace in the fact that the next space is yours. I'm next! Mom finally climbs into the driver's seat, but still doesn't move (you speculate she's picking a radio station, and maybe touching up her driving make-up). But in the darkness you see a glimmer of good news--taillights! Beckoning to you. That's my space! And it's right near the elevators! What luck! But wait...all of a sudden a car is passing on your left! One of the cars behind you has pulled around and plans to claim your space. And there is nothing you can do. Mom is backing up and slams on her brakes as Scavenger drives past, swerves around the oncoming car that has just left your space, and slides neatly in. Mom starts backing again, more cautiously. But Scavenger is a trendsetter, and now another car is passing. Then another. Finally, Mom gets out of the space, car #2 gets into it. You are next again, but there is no joy in it. The Scavengers shoved you down the list, usurping what was rightfully yours. Final traffic etiquette rule for today: you are not the only one waiting, your needs are not greater than anyone else's--wait your turn!

I'm only listing four because these are all things that happened to me in the last four days. Feel free to vent your own traffic etiquette faux pas experiences in the Comments, though. It is therapeutic!

Friday, December 12, 2008

I Think I'm Becoming Southern

I grew up in New England--Connecticut to be precise. You really don't get much more Yankee than that. Sure, I had a few Southern tendencies--I like iced tea with lots of sugar, but I always drank it the Northern way, sucking up the undissolved granules from the bottom of the glass with a straw. I didn't know such a thing as "sweet tea" existed until I came to Tennessee for college.

In addition to opening my eyes to the idea of sweetening tea while it's hot, and then adding the ice so the sugar is melted in, I picked up the handy second person plural. After all, I studied Spanish which has not one but two tenses, ustedes for formal and vosotros for informal. The closest Yankee English has is the sexist you guys and I suppose you could argue that the phrase you all is the ustedes of English. But, as we all know, the Southerners have y'all.

I took this phrase with me when I left the South for my first job in New York. I also brought a stack of country music CDs (mostly Reba McEntire). Back up North, I resigned myself to once again adding sugar packets to iced tea (you know you've crossed from South to North when you order a "sweet tea" and the waitress replies, "Well...we have iced tea. And sugar.")

Being in the college bubble, I did not absorb nearly as much Southern culture as I have since I moved back to Tennessee about four years ago. I realized it last week when a new coworker was telling an anecdote about a friend, and commented, "He doesn't have nearly as strong a Southern accent as I do." I was surprised to realize I hadn't noticed my coworker had an accent at all. My eyes are open to all the ways I have become Southern. When I first moved from New York, I couldn't bring myself to go to the local deli, because when I ordered:
"ARoastBeefOnWhiteWithLettuceTomatoMustardOnionsNoMayo" they didn't start throwing it together before I got to Tomato. Instead, the man behind the counter would wait a moment, and then say,
"What kind of bread?"
"White. Roast beef, lettuce, tomato, onions, mustard."
"Wait, roast beef....what do you want on it?"
Having spent six years spoiled by New York delis, it all seemed agonizingly slow. But now, I go to that same deli once a week and enjoy the calm pace.

Instead of studiously ignoring the lady idly chitchatting with the waitress while we both waited for our take-out orders at the Chinese restaurant this evening, I struck up a conversation about Oprah's weight, and why kitchens are bigger and more open than they used to be.

I like to eat barbecue--I even ate my pork barbecue sandwich today despite the fact that they left off the sauce and added cole slaw. I also know that's a regional difference (though I'm not Southern enough yet to know what regions).

When I arrived at work this morning I saw a man crossing the lobby in plaid pants, and my internal voice said, "Now that's just not right, right there." Putting aside the fact that Yankees don't generally wear plaid pants unless they're golfing (and there aren't many golf courses in midtown Manhattan), I tried to dismiss this sign, blaming it on the fact that I was listening to a Lewis Grizzard comedy routine on my commute in. Then I realized--I was listening to Lewis Grizzard. I was even laughing as he made jokes at the expense of Yankees and Georgia football!

Football. I've actually started watching this season, since my alma mater started winning. I actually care what's going on, and yell at the screen when I watch it on TV. I also have knowledge that I probably don't need. I know why restrictor plates are controversial in NASCAR. I can name most of the current members of the Grand Ole Opry--as well as many of those who aren't current (and I have most of them on my iPod). I know cornbread dressing is not something you put on salad. I eat at meat-and-threes.

And I still drink sweet tea pretty much daily--I guess I haven't changed that much.