I am really, really trying to quit.
Beginning with the very first column I ever wrote for this newspaper, I have commented more or less continuously on the traffic in Ipswich. I’m trying to give it up, but it’s so, so hard.
My wife has commented — I hesitate to say “complained” — that my columns are either about the weather, the wildlife, or the traffic, and mostly about the traffic. I’ve never said that our traffic is bad. It’s not heavy traffic. It’s not Boston traffic. It’s — what is the word? — idiosyncratic. It is, shall we say, interesting in its Ipswichiosity.
My personal history as a driver of automobiles in other cities did not prepare me well for the anomalies of Ipswich traffic. In Chicago, they run you over. In Boston, they cut you off. In Maricopa County, Arizona, which is literally as large as the entire state of New Hampshire, it’s just one massive movie-car-chase scene, because wherever you’re going, you’ve got so much ground to cover, if you don’t go 90, you’ll never get there.
Ipswich traffic is different. It’s friendly. It’s so nice, so neighborly, so prudent … well, I think I’m going to need therapy to live here.
I keep trying to tell myself, “Doug, it’s just you. Your perspective is skewed. You’re somewhat deranged by all those years playing real-life bumper cars with the death machine operators in the Big City.”
I have tried the 12-step program Columnists Anonymous, but I have never been able to get past Step 1: admitting that I’m powerless over Ipswich traffic, and that my life has become unmanageable. Certainly my life has become unmanageable, but I can’t bring myself to believe, deep down inside, that I’m actually powerless — that I can’t somehow make things different. I realize I’m new in town, and I can’t have even the slightest influence until at least 2029. I realize these roads, laid over the paths trod by cows of the Colonial era, were not laid out by mere human hands — God Himself directed the design, as He guided the Colonial cows to wander hither and yon, in a sort of cosmic doodling exercise. Perhaps God was having a slow day. Perhaps His traffic-management angels somehow missed forecasting the poor lady from Swampscott who spent two and a half weeks stranded in her Subaru, paralyzed with fear and confusion at that little triangle of grass where County Street, South Main Street, Poplar Street, and South Village Green all come together. I’ve spent time there myself, pondering great truths like, Who really has the right-of-way here?
But every time I swear I’ll never write another column about Ipswich traffic, I find myself sitting behind the wheel in the midst of yet another Nightmare on Elm Street, or Hallucination on High Street, and the urge within me begins to throb anew.
Last week, I was on Depot Square, trying to turn left onto Market Street. Sure, it can take a little while to get an opening in the traffic streaming up from Topsfield Road, especially when the train has just disgorged its commuters. But the practical reality is, eventually you will indeed make your left onto Market. A second seems like a minute, and a minute like an hour, but the truth is, the wait for a vehicle at the Depot Square stop sign is really very, very short. You do not need someone coming northbound to notice your plight and stop, completely busting the most basic of traffic laws, to wave you out — so that now you get to do something illegal and unsafe too!
Yet there I was, in my very small car, waiting patiently for a break in traffic, when some good-hearted soul did exactly this. It almost seems that some folks drive around town quivering with anticipation, hoping against hope that they’ll find someone to be nice to. And here was one of them. The driver slowed, then stopped dead, giving me a warm smile and an array of hand signals, clearly urging me to embrace the innate kindness of Ipswich’s drivers. Or maybe just wanting to play Pretend Traffic Cop.
I might have gone ahead and taken the left, except that at almost exactly the same moment, a southbound driver was approaching this same intersection from the north. This new vehicle was, of course, the very death-machine that right-of-way traffic laws were designed to help you avoid. If I had obeyed the Pretend Traffic Cop in the northbound car, I might have been clobbered by the southbound car.
But instead, the driver in the southbound car noticed the driver in the northbound car, and they decided to have a niceness contest. The southbound car stopped in traffic, the driver began waving his hands even more passionately, and smiling even more warmly, than the northbound driver had — while Market Street gradually clogged with vehicles.
I should have been grateful. It was a lovely moment. Neighborliness in action.
But somehow, in the face of such effusive friendliness — I snapped.
No, I growled to myself, I am not going to pull out and make my left turn. It’s wrong. They can’t make me do it.
And I sat there.
The two Good Samaritans kept gesturing, more and more vigorously, their smiles melting into scowls, and soon giving way to what surely appeared to be profanity.
But I refused to budge.
I wasn’t really fighting them. I didn’t make any of the gestures that came to mind in response to their finger-waggling and palm-swiping and forearm-jerking. In fact, I didn’t even really look either one of them in the eye. Instead, I decided to let them learn this lesson at their own pace. I just kept sitting there. At the stop sign. Stopped. Waiting for traffic to glide by. The way it’s supposed to.
I took to blithely looking around at random things — Did you realize there are 16 steps in the stone staircase on the property directly across the street? Hey, the fourth button on my radio isn’t tuned to any station. Oh man, the things you learn if you look into your rearview mirror — my eyebrows really could use a trim.
What happened next still astonishes me.
I realize now that Ipswich drivers, once they’ve committed to suspending traffic laws in order to prove how polite they are, will not back down. They will force-feed you their goodness or kill you trying — unless they die first. This must be the same spirit that broke the back of the British Empire.
On that amazing morning, under no circumstances would either driver make the first move. I have no doubt that we might still be sitting there today, with the frustrated drivers behind them cutting new makeshift commuter routes through the Institution for Savings drive-through and the alley beside Green Grocer.
Finally, I was the one who blinked. In a spasm of frustration and wonder, I gunned it, squealing out into the intersection and wheeling left onto Market. And feeling like a fool, of course, with dozens of drivers staring as I passed them. I, after all, was the moron who had been holding up traffic.
Hey, buddy, their glares seemed to say, don’t you know how to drive in Ipswich?
To which I can only groan, in reply … I’m trying to quit. I’m really, really trying to quit.