Saturday, June 5, 2010


This morning, I took Bubbie to his "swim" lesson. So called because it involves a swimming pool. (In fact, I like the lessons, and I credit them with helping Beanie develop swim-readiness.) Bubbie enjoys most of the activities, except those involving having to listen to the instructor and holding hands with the other kids.


As I am backing out of the driveway, I stop, of course, and check the street in both directions. At the far end of the block, I see a car just crossing the intersection, but as it is a full block away, and it is a residential street with a speech limit, and it is a slow Saturday morning (i.e., no students speeding to a class for which they likely are unprepared and in which they are unlikely to participate meaningfully...) I decide, I think reasonably, to back into the street. I was not conscious of making these calculations - I think this is what Malcolm Gladwell calls blink.

I digress.

I am just straightening out and pulling forward when I just barely see the other car whiz past on my right. There is a good chance that we could have sideswiped each other. I slam to a stop. Bubbie, strapped into his car seat, protests. I am livid.

I try to get over it, but then a couple of blocks later, I see the car come to a rolling stop, then whiz into the parking lot across the street from the Y (where I am headed) through the one-way exit. I pull into the spot across from the car as it happens to be the closest open spot. I admit I am somewhat surprised when the driver turns out to be a kind of elfish-looking middle-aged woman, but I roll down my window, and tell (admittedly, scream at) her, "That was an incredibly dangerous thing you did on Elm St. in front of my house while I was backing out."

She looks at me, half laughs in disbelief, then tells me, "Lady, I had the right of way, I saw a space, and I took it." I am not sure what part of this peeved me most: Lady? (Ever notice how this word went from being a compliment to a bit of a pejorative, uttered when somebody says something obnoxious? I cringe whenever I hear people use "lady" as a term of address or of reference, unless followed by something like "Camilla" or even "Gaga.") Right of way? (More below.) Space and took it? (Did she learn to drive playing Pole Position?)

Whether or not she had the "right of way" - and she was at the other intersection when I pulled into the street, which indicates to me that she was speeding - it seems to me that the driver still acted dangerously. Was she in a rescue car with lights and siren blaring? Was I driving a tractor or Amish buggy on a county road?

By the way, she had sped through the streets and pulled into the parking lot through the one-way exit on her way to a plant exchange at a local church. Gardening emergency!

I was thinking a lot about why this incident and my exchange with the driver so shook me. Because when she told me she had the "right of way," I tried to tell her: I could not see you passing me on the right. There could have been an accident. (Which, btw, there already had been this morning, with a college student slamming into a parked car while she was changing the CD she was listening to - she was not hurt, but the other car was totaled.) This is not just a matter of what your "right" is, but what the right thing to do is, with people being considerate of each other. Even when that means slowing down for the car that you see, from a block away, has pulled into the street. Or at least honk to let me know you are passing me on the right.

This got me thinking about why people post signs in front of their houses that read "Thank you for not speeding." Which I used to find a bit silly (not sure that they actually changed anyone's behavior) and also a bit snarky (because they clearly were not about thanking anyone, in the same way that someone who calls you "lady" often means something else).

I have been thinking that the signs are a way (the only way?) that people feel like they can assert their concerns and frustrations. (Our apparent impotence as neighbors and citizens is a topic I think about, too. Another time.) I think it is a comment not on whose right of way and the law, but how you behave around people's homes. The street in front of my house is public, but it is part of the immediate environment that I call my home. So, I do not like high school students breaking beer bottles, college students drunkenly shouting, or middle-aged gardeners speeding in front of where I live.

Perhaps it is a sign of the good neighborliness that many people around here really do exhibit. I have come to take that right way of behaving (not just a right of way way of behaving) as what we all ought to do. Not necessarily in the borrow-a-cup-of-sugar and chat-on-the-porch kind of way that (I think) is so romanticized, but at least a more fundamental patience with each other. Because we live with each other. Because we need to get along.

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