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Street Smarts

The Weirdly Patient Drivers of the South Coast


New math question:

If two cars in New York collide while barely moving at all, and then, 26 years later, two vehicles in California collide at the same speed, can something be learned about East vs. West?

You be the judge:

The first incident, which came to me via a reliable source, involved Juan Samuel, the very talented Dominican outfielder, who was traded to the New York Mets by the Philadelphia Phillies in June 1989. Juan was 28 years old then, but still, New York was a lot for a kid from the islands to handle.

Jeff Miller
Click to enlarge photo

Jeff Miller

So he was being driven to the stadium one day by a big, beefy chauffeur. And as they approached one of The City’s tunnels, the lanes narrowed from eight to one or two, which required a lot of merging. You know, Lane A car lets Lane B car go ahead, with the tacit understanding that next it’s Lane A’s turn. When it works, it’s a fine example of the weaving of the fabric of modern civilization.

But sometimes that fabric gets torn. People get impatient. After seven merges, they think, “You know what, I’m done. I’m not letting one more car get ahead of me.”

That’s what happened in this allegedly true episode. The big beefy chauffeur refused to yield. The driver of the vehicle in Lane B, possibly another limo carrying another sweet-natured Caribbean ballplayer, refused to back off. Or it was the other way around. But anyway, the two large cars crept ever closer until their front bumpers collided at roughly one mile per hour.

Then the two drivers leapt from their cars and started bashing each other with big, beefy fists. When Juan Samuel finally reached the stadium, he reportedly demanded to be traded, which he was very quickly. Where? Westward — to the LA Dodgers.

Coincidence? Who knows? It’s not as if the West doesn’t have its own well-publicized traffic issues. But still.

All of this came back to me the other day when I witnessed another slo-mo collision, this one involving an elderly white-haired woman in an elderly white Ford Falcon. The car emerged from a parking lot, creeping steadily across the roadway right in front of me on State Street, apparently aiming for the far left-hand turn lane. Unfortunately, a large gray van in front of me stood in her way.

Nonetheless, she kept inching the Falcon forward, as if the van’s left hindquarters might sort of disappear if she went slow enough. Didn’t happen. The bumpers met. The van jostled. Its driver craned his neck to see what was causing the disturbance. Then he simply turned back and patiently stared straight ahead.

And still the Falcon crept forward, now gently nudging the van. Some serious scraping was about to begin when the light turned green and the van drove off.

I was stunned. This wouldn’t have happened back in New York. There would have been a major rhubarb with cell phones brandished, police summoned and arms flailing as red-faced Driver 1 and Driver 2 told their versions. If Juan Samuel had been in the backseat, there might have been a slugfest.

I zipped ahead, stopped beside the van at the next light, and caught the driver’s attention. “What was that?” I asked him. He stared at me blankly. “Didn’t you care that the car was banging into you!?” I was kind of yelling at this point. “Were you just being kind to the elderly lady?”

He shrugged. “No big deal,” he said with a beatific, possibly herb-related smile. “It’s just a van.” And he drove off.

I sat there stunned. My lane’s arrow turned green, and still I sat there. Eventually a car behind me emitted the gentlest possible zenlike beep, suggesting that I might consider driving forward.

If I’d been sitting there like that anywhere near the Long Island Expressway, would the driver behind me have smashed my taillights with a sledgehammer? Of course not. Probably not.

Disclaimer: The above is not in any way meant to impugn all East Coast drivers, or to suggest that all Santa Barbara drivers are benevolent Buddhas, or to imply that these incidents are anything but isolated cases.

Probably.

Jeff Miller is a longtime New York newspaper writer and editor who now lives in Santa Barbara, writing books and songs.



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