In Southwest Wisconsin, driving is often a solitary, almost meditative experience. Jack’s commute to school was thirty miles and forty-five minutes of quiet. He drove first through marshland where sandhill cranes did mating dances and red-tailed hawks sat on tree branches watching for a rabbit breakfast, then up onto the ridges with views of the upper Mississippi River gleaming in the distance, and back into the marshland again. In the country, no matter what happens at your destination, getting there and getting home is almost always inspiring.
In contrast, driving in New York City is not fun. Unless you’re out at five o’clock in the morning, it takes forever to cover even a few miles because of all the cars and traffic lights. One of my daughters lives ten miles from us in an apartment in Manhattan. But we usually spend almost an hour driving there—and another hour driving back. Parking on the street is free, but it can take a long time to find an empty space on either end of the trip. It’s practically an all-day operation to have dinner at her place. Thank goodness for public transportation! Admittedly, the subway also takes almost an hour, but we can read or work while we’re riding, and we get a short walk at either end rather than a headache trying to find parking.
But there’s one thing I love about driving in New York, and that’s what Jack calls the New York City traffic ballet. While it’s true that sometimes drivers are angry and impatient and honk continually when they’re stuck in traffic, other times, New York City drivers are amazingly generous. Huge semi trucks can’t possibly stay in their lane when they make sharp turns on narrow city streets, so the other drivers back up or squeeze their cars into whatever free space they can find to let the truck make the turn—usually without complaining or even thinking about it. It’s just what you do. When an ambulance or fire truck—lights flashing and siren blaring—heads down a street packed with cars, all the other drivers immediately move together or turn into driveways or do whatever they can to let the emergency vehicle pass. If a big truck is double-parked to deliver boxes, or furniture or food or whatever, (which happens thousands of times every day) the other cars going around it politely take turns. When it works, driving in New York is like a dance with each car moving forward or back, spinning or turning with every movement carefully choreographed to get people to their destinations as fast as possible.
New Yorkers reading this post will shake their heads, because they know that driving in New York can be awful. But I think they expect to experience the worst, so that’s what they see and remember. The truth is it would be impossible for so many people to drive—or even live—in New York without an almost automatic unselfishness. And that, like driving in the country, is almost always inspiring.