If You Can Do It Here, You Can't Do It Anywhere
One beautiful, mid-summer morning a couple summers ago, I strolled home from a nearby coffee shop. Hot drink and iPad in hand, I was about to cross 41st Street in Sunset Park, a pleasant, working-class neighborhood on the southern side of Brooklyn. My wife and I had recently taken up part-time residency during the pandemic partly to escape New Orleans summers and mostly to spend more time near our youngest daughter, who also lives in Brooklyn. It was bright and sunny on this particular morning, and the sounds of birds chirping, kids playing in the park, and construction workers tossing things around their job sites filled the air. The light on 41st Street indicated that it was my turn to cross. As I stepped onto the road, I noticed a dark green pickup truck turning left onto 41st Street from 7th Avenue. I did calculus, geometry, or whatever math calculates what I was trying to figure in my head. I determined that if we continued at our current pace, the truck would hit me somewhere near the middle of the street. The driver must have been calculating, too, as he sped up to seemingly alter the equation. I did the same, modifying my speed to react to his alteration of the equation, which was probably not the most intelligent response but did show I still possessed solid math skills. Applying some physics to those math skills, avoiding a collision with something as heavy as an accelerating pickup truck would have been the more logical move. Logic be damned, I picked up my pace.
The decision to put myself directly in the path of a moving pickup truck wasn’t a suicide attempt, nor was it simply a reaction to this particular person, truck, or day. I was acting out on my ever-increasing annoyance at the typical New York City driver. The overly aggressive, too quick to honk, extreme double-parker (okay, I like and use that last one) become the worst versions of themselves when behind the wheel. I realize many of us, regardless of where we drive, tend to become less than optimal versions of ourselves behind the wheel; the separation and protection of glass and metal provide us the necessary confidence to lash out irrationally at our fellow drivers. But in New York, many people are already the worst versions of themselves without the added benefit of a vehicle. Have you ever said “hi” to, or made eye contact with, a New Yorker on the streets, subway, or entering a bodega? At best, they ignore you or scowl in your direction as if you opened some wound and poured salt on it. At worst, making eye contact with a New Yorker is an invitation to throw hands. They don’t need the automobile to hit their already low unpleasantness bar, yet they take advantage of the opportunity.
After explaining all this to a friend who lived in New York City for 40+ years and now makes his home elsewhere, he put things into perspective for me. He provided a new angle from which to look at New Yorkers’ driving habits. He loves and misses driving in New York City. For him, it was a way to release anger and frustration with little to no consequence. In a city where the people pride themselves on minding their own business, the honking and aggressive driving is hardly noticed by seasoned New Yorkers. I’ve observed this on rides to and from the airport or after a night out on the town. Someone will cut off my driver or swerve into their lane, and my wife and I will react from the back seat, but the driver seldom says anything. And if they have a reaction at all, it’s usually laughter. Sure, they may honk at someone taking too long at a light, but even that is often done with no emotion. It’s more of a reflex than a response. Still, I have witnessed the driver who pounds on the horn with the weight of all their problems and lays down a string of obscenities that would make a sailor or Bostonian proud. They could be tourists, newcomers, or natives who just want to release their anger, as my friend once did. When I ride a bicycle around the city, there is so much to pay attention to: double-parked cars in the bike lane, delivery drivers on scooters, trucks, and e-bikes making up their own rules, and, as mentioned above, the overly aggressive, honk-happy (except not happy) drivers all to contend with. I used to get annoyed and anxious at anything that hindered my smooth path to my destination. I soon realized, however, that I was the only one acting out in this manner. All other cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers do their business and are not affected by the chaos I witness; the bedlam is just part of the experience. New Yorkers expertly balance their levels of patience between apathy and agitation in perfect harmony, like a delicate dance. My friend confirms that dance. He further explains that he would never drive as aggressively and vocally anywhere outside of New York.
"Laying on the horn and screaming obscenities to someone from behind the wheel was therapy for me in New York. No one pays attention to it, but you could get shot anywhere else for that behavior."
As time goes on, all this begins to make sense. I ride my bike more confidently and vigilantly than I did before. I take all the chaos in stride and don’t let much ruin my trip. I have become one with the New York City driver, learned the dance, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. While I still think New York City drivers are overly aggressive and honk as much as they breathe, I now understand some of what is behind this and can even appreciate it. Besides, drivers have to deal with pedestrians crossing the streets whenever they damn well feel like it, with the light’s blessing or not, frequently racing across the street to beat a car that has the right-of-way. I now see the beauty in the chaos.
I had none of this perspective that morning two summers ago when I crossed 41st Street; thus, my willingness to increase my pace to teach a lesson to green pickup truck guy and all New York City drivers. Surprised at my courage (stupidity), the driver stopped short of the crosswalk and glared at me. Having proven my point, I put my hand out in a “thank you” posture and jogged across the Street. He gunned the engine, sped by, and yelled, “Take your time, buddy!” as he passed. I thought of many retorts, mostly profanity-laden or something way more amusing to me than would have been to him, but instead, I laughed. I figured this was the shortest and most effective reaction. Now I know he likely forgot about me a few seconds later.
For a moment, I wanted him to hit me. Not because I’m a masochist or otherwise wanted to feel the pain. Nor did I look forward to spending the day in the hospital. Maybe I wasn’t hugged enough as a child. Really, I just wanted to ruin his day. Have him explain his actions to someone. To feel deep remorse. To see him apologize to me as I lay in a pool of blood on 41st Street would have been satisfying. To put his hands to his head, asking himself over and over, “What have I done?” while looking around for assurance that everything would be okay, but not finding any, would have given me great pleasure, even if I had to endure a concussion or a few broken bones in the process. All the better. Of course, he could have as easily rationalized his behavior by correctly stating that the lunatic crossing the road looked like he was trying to get hit. Not only would I have a concussion, broken bones, or worse, but my goal to teach a valuable lesson to him and all automobile drivers in New York City would all be for not.
None of that happened. I walked through the park, and he sped on to the next left turn and other annoying pedestrians. His lesson unlearned, mine only beginning.
This article was previously published on my Medium site.