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November 20, 2005

Driving in Manhattan

Thank you to everyone who wondered where I've been for the past several days. I'm not the least offended that you didn't ask me, even as you were wondering about it. My site meter went into almost negative territory, so I know people were concerned. I was at my parents' house taking a turn driving my father to his radiation treatment. I mentioned my father's situation last spring, but he has enough tsuris these days that I'm not going to talk about his condition now, except to say that he's a very stubborn guy, and he has every intention of getting through this.

Anyway, I've driven in Manhattan enough to have some sense of the austere beauty of it. You laugh -- or at least, you scratch your head, or some other location -- but I'm serious. And the beauty of it is best appreciated with a zen approach in which you think beyond the reality. Here's an example: Say you're driving down Second Avenue from 96th to 72nd, as we were on Thursday and Friday. Second Avenue is 6 lanes wide, one way, heading downtown. Let's call the lanes 1 through 6.

So you have something like this:

I 1 I 2 I 3 I 4 I 5 I 6 I

Lines 1 and 6 are parking lanes, and you can't drive there. Aha! you say. That leaves four driving lanes, right?

I 2 I 3 I 4 I 5 I

Sorry, but you're jumping the gun. Lanes 2 and 5 are double-park lanes, where delivery trucks load and unload, cabs pick up and drop off passengers, and anyone who needs to make a short stop does so. I would say about a third of the space in Lanes 2 and 5 is occupied at any time, but even that level of congestion makes them absolutely useless for driving.

That means we're left with this:

I 3 I 4 I

It's still OK, you say. At least two lanes are open.

Well, sometimes. You're forgetting that delivery trucks sometimes have to back in to the double-park lanes, which blocks Lane 3 or 4. You're forgetting that taxis may be darting in and out of Lane 2 or 5, which sometimes blocks Lane 3 or 4. You're forgetting that if more than one car tries to turn left or right into a side street from Lane 3 or 4, and pedestrians are crossing that street, the backup blocks Lane 3 or 4. You make progress, or you don't. You get high blood pressure, or you don't. It's best to take the zen approach.

It's actually even more interesting on the main cross-town streets, like 96th, 86th, 79th, and 72nd. There, the six lanes are three in each direction. Again, Lanes 1 and 6 are for parking; Lanes 2 and 5 are for double parking. And Lanes 3 and 4 are often blocked by cars trying to make left turns at the avenues after waiting for the stream of traffic in the other direction to stop. If the double parkers are too close to the corner, this can shut down traffic completely as the people waiting for the cars trying to make a left turn are unable to get around to pass them.

If the cross-town streets and the avenues of Manhattan, metaphorically, are its arteries, the city should by all accounts have suffered cardiac arrest and be dead by now. But it hasn't and it isn't. And that always amazes me when I drive there.