Saturday, October 18, 2008

Next time, I should keep my finger to myself

Friday night brings them all out in New York City: The nutjobs, the wackos, the assholes. The ditzes, the flakes, the clueless. The pretty people, the arrogant, the self-righteous. I should know this by now. Or rather, I do know this, but I should bear it in mind more often when I find myself on the Manhattan streets after work at 2 a.m.

Here's the deal: The car is there when I walk downstairs after work, a nice easy night with a clear 2 a.m. finish because there was no baseball game tonight. I get in the car at the curb as a stream of taxis passes us even as the driver lets up on the brake and begins to move. The cabs are continuing south on 9th Ave., into the Meatpacking District. The avenue is packed in these wee hours of the morning as people hop from one trendy club to another or search for that dive bar on 14th St. for a nightcap or head home, drunk and boisterous in the back seat of a cab. After the light turns green, we're slow to turn right onto 15th St. because the cabs continuing on 9th cannot move through the intersection. The right lane we are in, which is marked as a combination straight and right-turn lane, contains cars side-by-side. My driver has his right-turn signal on -- as does the SUV to our left.

Horns begin blaring and a police cruiser toots his bullhorn. He leaves his dome lights off, however. With the inside track, my driver is able to make the right turn onto 15th St. just ahead of the pushy SUV, which did its best to position itself in front of us before the turn. I look out the window throughout the turn, trying to both get a glimpse and imagine who would have the gall to pull such a stunt, no matter how big or tough or overcompensating he is behind the wheel of his gas-guzzler. Not to mention the fact that he had to have heard the cop's horn moments before making the turn.

As we begin to make our way down 15th, I can sense the SUV's headlights close behind me. Turning around, I find I'm correct -- he's inches from our bumper, blatantly tailgating and swerving first to the left, then to the right, to get around us. It's not a two-lane road, and if parking were allowed on the right side, there's no way he would've had room. But the right-hand gutter is clear, so he floors it and passes us.

Now here's where I get stupid. Yet it must be stressed that I was in the right, clearly, while the SUV driver had three strikes against him: 1.) the illegal turn off of 9th Ave; 2.) tailgating; and 3.) passing on the right on a sidestreet.

Still, I probably shouldn't have given him the finger.

Or I shouldn't have done it so blatantly, my thumb securely holding down the other three fingers, my long middle digit pressed up against the top of the window -- where it was closer to his eye level and right up there in the lights shining down from the streetlamps. As soon as he surged in front of us -- swerving into our path before he smashed into a delivery truck parked at the curb -- and perhaps even before that moment, I knew I should've thought before extending my finger. At the very least, I should've disguised it by drumming my other fingers on the window as if listening to music or flat-out holding it up against the door beneath the window. It wouldn't have been seen there, but I still would've known and felt a moment of righteousness.

But he saw it. And he slammed on his brakes, coming to a stop in the middle of 15th St., halfway between 9th and 10th avenues. I looked behind us: No one. The driver got out and started yelling, approaching the driver's door of the car I was in. I held my hands up as if to say, "What, dude?" And yet I do not know why he approached the driver, when he clearly saw me in the back seat flipping him off. My driver, unaware of my instigation, started yelling and flipped open his cell phone to call the police. The aggressor yanked at the driver's door twice and (thankfully) found it locked.

In the back of my mind, I cursed the cops in the car on 9th Ave. who chose not to follow the SUV that had made an illegal turn two cars in front of him. Luckily, the SUV aggressor's passenger had a cooler head. "Come on, man. Let's get out of here." That's literally what he said, like we were in the opening scene of a Law & Order, when you see the aftermath of the crime that the detectives will spend the next hour (minus commercials) investigating.

My heart raced, my mind flashed through all the possible scenarios of what could have happened -- at least when it wasn't berating my hand for getting us into this predicament. The SUV sped ahead to the light at 10th Avenue. I was hoping it would be green so that he could continue on ahead of us, but it was red. We pulled up behind him. My driver continued to wonder what the hell was wrong with the SUV driver, and I explained that he probably thought I was giving him the finger, but of course I wasn't, because that would've been stupid. (He didn't need to know.)

On the ride home after a long night, when I just want to get home, the red lights always seem endless. Tonight, on my earliest exit from the office in 10 days, the wait at 15th St. and 10th Ave. was unbearable. And yet, it lasted mere seconds, because the SUV then made a left onto 10th, going against the traffic (not that there were any cars at the moment he made his turn, but he still was going the wrong way on a one-way street) for 20 feet so that he could turn into the gas station on the corner. Yet once there, he executed a K-turn, once again bringing my heart rate up as I wondered if he was trying to maneuver around the cars at the pumps so that he could exit back onto 15th St. -- where he would then be behind us again.

Thankfully, the driver got out. I don't know if he continued to shout at us or even look at us because there was a car parked in between us and all I could see was that his door had opened. Our light turned green and we headed up 10th toward the Lincoln Tunnel. Yet as we were slowed by traffic outside the 10th Avenue clubs and the lights as they turned from red to green, I continued to look back over my shoulder every block, just to make sure the silver SUV wasn't back on the road, weaving its way through traffic looking for us.

I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the license plate number and added, "Approached car on 15th St." so that the police would have a clear lead should they find us run off the road, unconscious. As we sat at a light before entering the Lincoln Tunnel access road, my driver told me he has a hammer on the front seat. "I'm glad we didn't need to use it," I reply.

Once safely inside the tunnel, where I could confirm that the car immediately in front of us and immediately behind us wasn't the SUV -- even though it hadn't left the gas station before we were several blocks away -- and the right lane was closed at that hour, my heart rate finally started to level off. Once we passed the tiled New Jersey-New York border at the (presumed) midpoint, I at last felt a sense of relief.

The rest of the way home, I was glad that it didn't get past a tug on the door handle and a few curses shouted at us from the street. But I also wished I wasn't stupid, while at the same time wished I was bigger and/or tougher or, for that one moment, the slightest bit an asshole, so that I could've defended myself should it have come to that. Because in the end, my one small act of antagonism was nothing compared to the trifecta of aggression that had prompted my response. I mean seriously -- where does the guy who passes on the right on a side street in New York City get off getting pissed off because I flip him off in response to his stunt?

Ironically, all this happened while I was in Car 495, which seems to be a number associated with drama whenever he takes me home. True to form, not only was the right lane of the Lincoln Tunnel closed, but so was the helix on the other side, sending all the traffic on to the Weehawken streets to make its way around and back up onto Route 495 and toward the Turnpike and Route 3. At least the traffic was light in the 2-2:30 half-hour. An hour later -- as I finish this post, in fact -- the volume is probably doubled, the backup through the tunnel and out onto the various approaches in the city. By 3 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night, the Bridge-and-Tunnel crowd seems to have had enough and has begun to make its way back across or beneath the Hudson. If the helix is closed, forget about it. You could be stuck in a 45-minute backup just to travel the three miles beneath the river. Your 20-minute ride home stretches to more than an hour.

Thankfully, that wasn't the case, and I walked into the kitchen well before 3 o'clock. With Casey spending the night at a friend's in the city, I didn't feel the need to head right to bed. And having worked until 4:30 or 5 a.m. every night since Tuesday, I'm not quite as tired at 3 a.m. as I otherwise would be. Therefore, it was the perfect time to enjoy a beer and rehash the ride home, if only as a reminder to think before I flip next time.

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