Monday, April 06, 2009

COLUMN: Stoplight

You can't see me, but I'm doing the happy dance all around the workplace today.

As I type, crews from MidAmerican Energy and the city of Moline appear to be hard at work a couple blocks away from the office, and (fingers crossed) in a short amount of time, perhaps even before this column makes it to print, the intersection of 19th St. and 6th Ave. will have its stoplight back -- and maybe, just maybe, my biggest whine of 2009 will come to an end.

It was a story that could have been way worse. About a month ago, an automobile and a semi truck decided to have an illicit relationship in the middle of that intersection. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured in the resulting collision -- no one, of course, except an innocent stop light who shall remain nameless. Its sudden departure has turned our downtown paradise into pure, unadulterated vehicular anarchy.

Why it's taken WEEKS to get the repairs done is beyond me -- perhaps there's a backorder at Stoplights R Us, I dunno -- but in the interim, the city put up bright, obvious, and easy-to-read 4-way stop signs. Too bad, then, that society appears totally stumped and perplexed when confronted with red octagonal signs that say "STOP."

On two occasions in the past month, I've left work on my lunch hour, pulled up to the Intersection o' Doom, waited patiently for my turn, and then pulled out only to have some nimrod sail right on through at full barrel and come within inches of testing my Volkswagen's much-touted collision safety rating. I understand that the sudden absence of a dear friend like a stoplight could temporarily create brain confusion, especially if you're like me and drive to work every morning in a sort of groggy autopilot haze. But it's not like the road crews went out of their way to hide the temporary stop sign. It's right there in the center of the intersection, as if to say, perhaps, oh, I dunno, STOP.

But perhaps even more aggravating than the bonebrains who've been ignoring the stop sign altogether are the ones who don't quite know what they're doing at a 4-way stop. It turns out I'm one of them. I get the basic concept, I really do: the first car who stops is the first car to go, right? But the intersection of 19th and 6th is a busy one, especially around lunch. And more often than not, I'm pulling up to the stop at the EXACT same time as someone else in a different direction.

Honestly, I don't know what to do when this happens. I have fuzzy memories of grumpy Mr. Bunch telling our Driver's Ed class that you yield to the driver on your left. Is that right? Or is it your right, right? Wrong? Clearly my confusion is shared by EVERY VEHICLE ON THE ROAD, for at least once a day I'll get caught in the should-I-or-shouldn't-I dance. To go or NOT to go, THAT is the question. Gas. Brake. Gas. Brake. If executed correctly, this manoevre can carry on until both vehicles have timidly crept their way into the middle of the intersection before one makes an overly dramatic acceleration and peels out, pedestrians and opposing cars be darned.

Just today, I was coming back from lunch and pulled to the 4-way stop at the exact same time as a girl in a Toyota. Our eyes locked. The non-verbal dialogue began. There were no words, but I'm pretty sure it went like this:

"Hi, I'm in a car."
"Me, too."
"We pulled up at the same time."
"Yep, we sure did."
"So who goes first? Should I? I am, after all, kinda cute."
"Indeed you are. But I'm late returning to work from lunch."
"Really. Sorry to hear that. Where'd you go?"
"Ahh. Did you try the new Roastburger?"
"No, those look kinda weird."
"Agreed. Okay, so look, I'm think I'm gonna go."
"No, I think I'M gonna go."
"I'll inch out a bit."
"Me, too. I enjoy being difficult. It's part of my quirky charm."

That last comment was actually from the horn of the irate driver behind me, who had the nerve to interrupt our delightful unspoken conversation and send the Toyota nervously scuttling past me.

And, of course, after spending the afternoon internally fuming about idiot drivers, I proceeded to BECOME one that very night. While leaving the newspaper parking lot, I totally misjudged a passing vehicle and totally pulled out right in front of some dude, causing him to screech on the brakes.

Well, I say "him," but truth be told, when I looked in the rearview, all I could see was tires as tall as my car -- for only I would choose to cut off some jacked-up, gun-racked, testosterone-fueled, built-Ram-tough uber-truck with my wee VW Beetle. And, as expected, the guy spent the whole drive to Rock Island road-raging on my bumper, revving his engine maniacally, shining his brights into my the back of my skull, and presumably wanting my head on a stick.

Eventually, he gave up and I managed to live, thrive, and survive at least long enough to scribe this column. Dude, if you're reading this -- if you CAN read -- I'm terribly sorry for cutting you and your machismo off. If I wasn't so distracted thinking about people driving like idiots, I wouldn't be driving like an idiot. All I know is I want my stoplight back.

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