Sunday, November 20, 2011

New York traffic: a symphony in F major

I once almost fell off the back of a tuk-tuk rattling through central Bangkok after it swerved to dodge a chicken.

Another time, I spent three hours watching the road through my fingers on Reunion Island after our minivan tried to avoid a traffic jam by driving in the opposite lane.

In Ho Chi Minh it took me days to learn that in order to cross the street you have to make like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade and take the leap of faith – just slowly step out into the traffic and trust that the never-ending flow of scooters and honking cars will part for you. It always does.

When it came to chaotic traffic, I always thought Vietnam won, hands down.


Yep, that wins.


But that was before I had to drive through New York's Lincoln Tunnel at 6pm on a Friday.

To clarify: I wasn't driving. No one was, really, given the entrance to the tunnel was backed up with hundreds of cars – a “parking lot”, as they would say here. My friend Kristin, a native New Yorker, was behind the wheel, taking me and my partner away for a weekend in the country.

About 120,000 drivers a day use the Lincoln Tunnel - a 2.5km stretch under the Hudson River - to commute between Manhattan and neighbouring New Jersey.

On this night it seemed like all 120,000 of them had turned up at once.

Surveying the scene ahead, Kristin started twitching. The twitching gave way to steering-wheel drumming. The drumming was joined by mumbling and intermittent swearing.

After 20 minutes of watching the lights turn green and back to red, her patience finally wore thin and she hit the horn. For about 30 seconds straight.

You know that famous scene in Midnight Cowboy where Dustin Hoffman is almost run over by a taxi and angrily shouts “I'm walkin' here!” in that quintessential “Noo Yawk” accent? Imagine him as a stressed-out female office worker, put him in a Honda trying to get into the Lincoln Tunnel and replace the word “walkin'” with “drivin'” and you're getting close to recreating my view from the back seat that evening.

“YEAH YOU CAN STARE AT ME ALL YOU WANT BUDDY, I'M NOT STOPPIN',” she shouted at the driver next to us, hitting the horn again.


Kinda like this.


The lights changed back to green and Kristin kept honking, yelling out to other drivers to join her cause.

Soon there was a chorus of honks in time with the traffic lights, with Kristin as conductor. It could almost have been high art if the symphony hadn't been punctuated with so many F words.

We were amazed. Here in America, a country we thought was renowned for violent road rage, no one was batting an eyelid at this behaviour. Attempt the same in sleepy Adelaide and you'd likely get a crowbar through your windscreen.

Suddenly Kristin spotted a cyclist, and wound down the window.

“I WILL PAY YOU A HUNDRED BUCKS TO GO SLAP THAT TRAFFIC COP,” she yelled, pointing at the overwhelmed officer flapping his hands in the middle of the nearby intersection.

Unsurprisingly he refused, but that didn't deter her.

“Here, you drive,” she told my partner as she jumped out of the car and sprinted off to berate the policeman.

Two minutes later she returned. What had she told the guy? “I told him to do his f***in' job!”

Kristin's mobile rang. It was her husband.

“Honey I can't talk, I'm honkin' the horn,” she said before hanging up and rejoining the Symphony in F Major.

“Come on buddy let's f***in' MOVE! (HONK) Get your head out of your f***in' ass! (HONK) It's a f***in' ZIPPER MERGE people, get it done! (HONK) Do I have to teach you people how to f***in' drive? (HONK) ZIPPER MERGE, YOU F***IN' JERK!”

After an hour and a half the swearing stopped, the honking gave way to steering wheel drumming, the drumming to slight twitching, and then we were hurtling through New Jersey. With a sigh and a flick of her hair, Kristin exorcised the last of her road rage demons.

“I'm sorry you guys, I really wanted you to enjoy that commute,” she said.

Oh, we did.

This article was first published in the Adelaide Sunday Mail Sunday liftout on November 20, 2011.



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