There’s a downside to being an Episcopalian in Ipswich.
The venerable 150-year-old Ascension Memorial Episcopal Church, as you may know, sits in that clump of churches downtown. I guess in the old days, all the churches huddled together in one neighborhood to protect themselves from the secularists. There’s the Congregationalist First Church, up on the hill. Then just across the street, to the south, is the Methodist Church, whose sanctuary ceiling recently came crashing down into the pews. Backing up on the Methodist Church, on a diagonal, further to the south, is the Episcopal Church — where the Methodists are now holding their Sunday services as well, till their ceiling gets healed. (And closely monitoring all three churches, like a cranky nun with a ruler bent over a trio of untrustworthy schoolboys, is the Ipswich Public Library, sitting smack between the Episcopalians and the Methodists, and scowling across the street at the Congregationalists — except that Library Director Patty DiTullio is nothing like a cranky nun with a ruler.)
Here’s what all this geography means to you. If you’re (a) an Episcopalian — or, at least temporarily, a Methodist — and (b) you’re heading to or from Ascension Church on a Sunday morning — and (c) you live anywhere to the north, east, or west of the church — you’re likely to find yourself at a four-way stop, at the intersection of County and Green Streets, about 300 feet from Ascension. People will be out and about on a Sunday morning, driving their vehicles to and fro, picking up sundries from Cumby’s or enjoying the cool and the quiet of the small-town weekend. A few will even be heading to some church. Maybe even yours. In any event, as you approach the four-way stop at County and Green, you will find other vehicles approaching the intersection from other directions, or perhaps already there, waiting for you.
Now the great question of your day materializes: Which of these vehicles will go first? Leading, of course, to the second question: Will you get to church on time? Or (if you’re heading the opposite direction) home anytime soon?
This shouldn’t be a difficult situation. The law regarding right-of-way is quite clear, and quite simple. At a four-way stop, according to our plainspoken friends at the official Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (MassRMV.com), the right-of-way goes to the person who gets there and stops first. But, you ask, what if you and another vehicle arrive and stop at the intersection simultaneously? Well, then, the RMV says, the vehicle on the rightgets to go first. Easy-peasy.
At County and Green, however, none of this seems to apply. It appears that no one in the vicinity has gotten the memo about right-of-way. And somehow, County and Green has become a super-popular destination on Sunday mornings. Who knows who’s selling what in this neighborhood. But anyway, just about every week, as I approach this four-way stop, at least one other vehicle is approaching it too. Sometimes two. Sometimes there are actually four of us, sitting there looking at each other.
Going with the basic right-of-way rules would be so simple. But no. Here in Ipswich, apparently it’s not a question of who got to the intersection first. It’s a question of who’s the nicest. If you’re nicer than the other person, you’ll let them go first, right? Even if they’re not on your right. Maybe especially if they’re not on your right, because giving the right-of-way to the person who doesn’t have the right-of-way is the nicest way to be nice of allthe nice ways to be nice. Unless, of course, there are four vehicles stopped at the intersection, in which case the nicest person is the person who goes last, regardless of anything and everything in the entire universe.
And the unwritten rule seems to be that you can’t just wait out the other people and go last when there’s no one left to wait for. This doesn’t get you any niceness points. No, you must actually assignthe right-of-way to another driver. And ideally you should do this with a certain casual flourish: a gentle smile, a friendly nod, a decidedly nonchalant wave of the hand. I believe some long-time Ipswich residents practice this move in the mirror at home, to make sure it’s perfect: the smile shouldn’t be too big and crazy (this is New England, after all); the nod has to be perfectly balanced, somewhere between bossy and obsequious; and the wave of the hand absolutely cannot signal any annoyance, which means not too fast, but also not too slow, and not too far, but far enough to be noticeable, because if the other driver can’t see it, what was the point of doing it. Got all that?
It’s a spiritual dilemma for me. On your way to church, or just coming from church — with the liturgy still echoing in your ears, and the memory of that stained-glass Jesus still peering down upon you — you certainly feel like you oughtto be the nicest driver at the four-way stop. Church people should never be second-nicest, should they? On the other hand, if you’re an Episcopalian, I don’t think you’re really obligated to be as nice as, say, an Evangelical. Those folks take “turn the other cheek” and “do unto others” literally, whereas we Church of England people like to think of Scriptures as recommendations, the sort of guidance you get from a wise, wealthy uncle — canny, but not compulsory.
So here I sit, at the four-way stop, trying to figure out how and when to proceed, and trying not to lose my religion in the process, as other drivers go through their assorted gesticulations — instead of just obeying the dang law.
I tell you, it’s enough to make a person a Buddhist.
Doug Brendel lives a saintly life on outer Linebrook Road. Follow him by clicking “Follow.”