My recent re-entry into Northeastern traffic reminded me of a similar experience, after I had lived in the South long enough to forget how the other half lives - uh, drives.
It all began with the bumper sticker I saw on Washington Road before I made a two-week round-trip between Georgia and New England:
"Save Georgia; teach a Yankee how to drive!"
Hrumph! I said, as I drove out of town, thinking of all the things I could say about the way folks drive "down here." But by the time I returned I completely understood why Northern and Southern drivers have a perfect bone to pick with each other.
You can forget things when you haven't been there, done that for an eon or two, which is why the day I left New England and headed south across the Bronx, the northwest corner of Manhattan and the George Washington Bridge, caught me completely off guard.
From the time the G.W.B. came into view until I reached the New Jersey side, it took 30 minutes to go three miles - which reminded me of the first time someone explained the game of football to me so it made sense: "You have four plays to go 10 yards." Although this wasn't football or a whole lot of fun, the play-by-play went something like this:
Four lanes of asphalt filled to capacity with weekend drivers suddenly narrow to two. No cars exit, but on-ramps continue to feed vehicles in between the already packed occupants of the expressway. (Route 95 goes all the way across the bridge.) Stop, go, wait until a six-inch space opens up between cars on your right or left, feed into the ongoing lane and out of the one you're in - which is always the one being phased out.
Congratulate yourself on making the merge alive, breathe deeply, and... Oh, no! A disabled vehicle reduces the lanes again and you jockey for position and another first down.
You're about to sigh again when more on-ramps appear on each side, and four more lanes of traffic merge into the existing two. It would have been easier, you moan, to swim across the Hudson.
Funny the things you notice when traffic slows to a crawl. I became better acquainted with the truck driver on my right, and the family in the red VW on my left, than I am with my neighbors back home.
I noticed something else, too. Even with a steady stream of brake lights in front of me, I didn't see many lights in the rear windows or more than two bulbs above the bumper. Ah, I concluded, people don't drive late model cars up here because they use their vehicles for transportation, not status. Between fender benders and potholes the size of sinkholes, owners of sleek, expensive cars would suffer perpetual paranoia.
New York City finally behind me and the New Jersey Turnpike ahead, I couldn't wait to blow some of the gunk out of my carburetor (I was driving an old car, too!) and the tension out of my brain. Never knowing whether my exit would be to the left or the right, I stayed in a "safe lane," which might have been the middle of three or five lanes, or a constant altering between two and seven. Though I matched or exceeded the speed limit, my ears ached from the swish of cars passing on both sides.
That's when I remember the frantic Manhattan policeman who noticed my Southern license plate some years before and screamed, "Move it! Up here the cardinal rule of speed is to keep up with the traffic!"
Georgians, the reason you think we Yankees need driving lessons is that your traffic is so slow we lose all our reflexes. That not only makes us seem like poor drivers down here, but it's next to suicide when we re-enter the fast lanes up north.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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