Friday, May 1, 2015

Slow Down and Enjoy the Ride. But Not Too Much. The Good Life in Pulaski, Virginia.

Bostonians are known as being ridiculously aggressive drivers and, more generally, just assholes. I spend an inordinate amount of time defending the locals against these allegations. On the driving front, I’m constantly explaining to people that the pervasive aggression just has to do with the fact that Boston roads are built on cow paths from the 1600s. The city layout was literally designed by bovines. The roads are such a hodgepodge of lunacy that if you waited patiently to pull out into an intersection, by the time it was your turn, you would be long dead and decomposed – a pile of dust in your cup holder. You have to be aggressive. It’s just how it works here.

But then, in spite of my generally forgiving disposition towards drivers here, I started to change my mind. In one day, I saw three people honk at cars in front of them for not driving fast enough, and a fourth guy honk at a car for not rolling fast enough through a stop sign. I can’t even imagine what would happen if, God forbid, someone visiting from out of town actually came to a full stop at a stop sign. He would probably get dragged out of his car and beaten to death. And then there are red light issues, which are particularly terrifying for an early-morning runner like myself. On the main road through my neighborhood, during the morning commute, a yellow light doesn’t mean anything at all. A fresh red light means you should still speed up and try to nose out anyone who might be thinking about pulling out under the corresponding freshly green light. To really play it safe as a pedestrian, you have to give drivers a full five count after a light turns red before being confident that it’s OK to cross the street.

What I don’t understand is, don’t people realize that you can’t beat traffic flow? A case study: Driver A blows through red lights at 60 MPH, zigzags through traffic, plows over a group of school children, forces some geriatrics to toss their walkers in the air and jump for cover. Driver B rolls leisurely along, says hello to the crossing guard, stops to help someone fix a flat, pulls over to reply safely to a text message. And eleven minutes later, they’re both next to each other at the same traffic light three miles down the road. You can’t beat the stock market. Or gravity. Or rush hour traffic.

So, first of all, if everyone’s just going to work, what’s the big rush? And second of all, if being hyper aggressive doesn’t actually get you where you’re going any faster, why be that way? Maybe Bostonians are assholes. Let’s examine some of the non-driving facets of life here: Northerners have the reputation of being more aggressive, competitive, in your face and fast paced than people elsewhere in the country. More so in New England. Even more so in Massachusetts. And really really even more so in Boston. When you ask someone where they went to school (a question that, incidentally, gets asked more in metro Boston than anywhere else in the industrialized world, other than, possibly, Washington DC), the response you often get is, “here.” What “here” means is, "Harvard." It’s as if the name of such a sacred credential is itself just too much to be spoken in mixed company. The unparalleled achievement represented by having blossomed through an institution of such renown should be known to the world without the word so much as having to pass through ones esteemed lips. But I digress. Implied academic braggadocio is just one example of being aggressive and competitive.  Let’s just say that people around here like to size up one another and tend to be somewhat pathologically focused on advancement and achievement, even when they’re not behind the wheel.

People must be more laid back somewhere. And they are in, for example, Jackson, Mississippi where I ended up a few months ago for a race. Things are just slower in the South. People take more time to chat. And they’re just so damn friendly and sincere that, coming from Boston, it’s a bit off-putting. During lunch at a little restaurant downtown, the owner came over to welcome us. You wouldn’t think there was that much to say about a Greek salad and a tuna melt, but after about half an hour we had learned enough about the ingredients and where they came from and who was involved in the distribution chain that we could have written a short book. And during the race, volunteers and other runners were so appreciative of one another that passing conversations turned into almost infinite feedback-loop thank-fests. “Thanks for volunteering!” “Thanks for running!!” “Thanks for coming out so early to pour water!!!” “Thanks for visiting our city!!!!” “Thanks for hosting us all!!!!!” “Thanks for looking so great after so many miles!!!!!!” It was all very nice at first, but after a while I started to feel like George Carlin at the grocery store check-out (Check Out Girl: “have a nice day.” George Carlin: “yeah yeah, just give me my fucking change.”).

The last straw was at the airport when we were trying to leave Jackson. After the plane pulled from the gate, the pilot announced that our flight had been re-routed to Houston and that, because the route was longer, we needed to get loaded up with a little extra fuel. He came on again later to say that he was being told from the control tower that they couldn’t exactly find the guy who drove the truck for the sub-contractor that provided fueling services, but that someone in the control tower knew someone who knew him and thought he could track him down. So we waited. And waited. And I imagined Rufus the fuel truck driver taking his time chatting up Ruth-Ann the Piggly Wiggly clerk: “yup, well I reckon I should git on over to the tarmac to fuel up that 727 with them 189 passengers fixin’ to git to Houston, but don’t you forgit that Bobbie-Sue’s rhubarb pie is still the best in the county and you better c’mon by for a heapin’ helpin’ or she’ll be madder’n a shampooed chicken in July…” And, in the meantime, the 189 type-As on the plane were asking whether there definitely wasn’t enough fuel, or just maybe not enough fuel, and if it’s just maybe, whether we shouldn’t just go ahead and give it a shot, and if the plane falls out of the sky somewhere over western Louisiana, well, so be it, as long as we can just GET THIS FUCKING PLANE UP INTO THE AIR WHILE WE’RE YOUNG.

So maybe Jackson, Mississippi is a little too slow.

There must be a middle ground, some paradise town where you can roll slowly through a stop sign without fearing for your physical safety, and at the same time corral the people you need to get a commercial jet in the air sometime remotely on schedule. Boston is too aggressive. Jackson is too laid back. What’s right in the middle? Looks from the map like Pulaski, Virginia. I’ve never been to Pulaski, but it’s in the dead center – 726 miles to Boston; 692 miles to Jackson. My research shows that Pulaski’s got a Hardees, a Presbyterian church, a golf club, a nice swimming hole, a stately-looking county maintenance building and 9,086 residents. It must be perfect. People are probably nice, but not infuriatingly nice. Hard-working but not crushingly competitive. Moving along at a pace that’s perfectly in synch with the cosmos. Well that’s it. I’m moving. So long manic overdrive Bostonians. See you later molasses-slow deep South. I’ll send my address when I get settled into the perfect equilibrium of Pulaski, Virginia.

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