Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Driving Me Backwards

(A nod to Brian Eno for this evening's title.)

Working in this unfortunate city, doing outreach to patients' homes, navigating the pock-marked streets, I have come to know the city more intimately than I had ever cared to. Compared to my somewhat bucolic college town where I reside, the city is a troubled landscape of poverty, drugs, corruption, and mismanagement.

Driving in this city---like in most inner-city environments---the generally accepted rules of conduct do not necessarily apply. Stop signs and red lights are apparently seen as no more than suggestions, hints at what action the driver or pedestrian might choose to take if they were so inclined. As I pass down many a city street, if I come upon a light just turning green for me, I will defensively slow down as I reach the intersection, assuming that a car or SUV could come careening from the left or right, through the red light, striking me as I cross the intersection in which I appear to have the right of way (at least as far as the traffic signals are concerned, that is). I sometimes feel my body contract ever so slightly as I drive through a green light, as if I'm just waiting for that eventual broadside impact delivered at the hands of a reckless city driver.

In this city's culture, cars seem like weapons, and no one---literally no one---considers making a kind or considerate gesture. Coming from our genteel college town thirty minutes away---thirty minutes which might as well be one thousand miles---I'm used to drivers stopping in their tracks to wave other drivers on, people allowing a bus to cut into traffic, or pedestrians to cross the street. Here in the city, pedestrians pay no attention to "WALK" or "DON'T WALK" signs. Adults model for children that cross-walks have no meaning, that on-coming cars are something to challenge, not to respect. Children dart out from between cars, adults cross the street at any time, from any direction, bicycles go against traffic, and miniature motorcycles (often called "Crotch Rockets") blast down the side streets, piloted by absurdly young (unhelmeted) children or similarly absurd middle-aged men, perched precariously on these toy motorcycles with powerful and noisy engines that belch smoke and fumes. Utter chaos.

How many times have I seen a car simply ignore a school bus and its flashing red lights? How many times have I seen an ambulance struggle to make it through a line of cars which refuses to follow commonly accepted practice and move aside for the screaming siren? How many times have I wanted to stop at a crosswalk to allow a pedestrian to cross, only realizing that another impatient car is sure to pass me illegally on the right at full speed and take that pedestrian's life in a nano-second? The Russian Roullette wheel seems quite busy in this topsy-turvy place, and I would never wish to hasten another's demise simply because I was trying to be nice, only succeeding to put another in unnecessary danger.

City life---another reason why I choose to live in my semi-rural sub-suburban haven. Being in the city from 9 to 5 is quite enough, but full-time existence in this chaos of spurned rules and broken laws would just be too exhausting for words.

Here's a quiet prayer for the city, its inhabitants, its rules that are constantly broken, and for those of us who travel its streets with frequent apprehension. May all red lights be honored, and may we all traverse the streets in peace.
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