When my family and I moved to Amherst six years ago from Los Angeles, one of the first things I was told is that Buffalo is called the City of Good Neighbors. Indeed, if judging only by my neighbors on my street, that appellation is well-suited. From the moment we arrived, we were welcomed by warm, kind, engaging people who only wanted us to feel a part of this small neighborhood community.
It is not uncommon for me to find myself engaged in friendly conversation with my neighbors. Many of us know each other by name – so different than life in a Los Angeles neighborhood. Clearly, the City of Good Neighbors was not invented by a PR agent intending to make Buffalo look better than it is. We are a city of good neighbors.
Except when we are in our cars. The character of Buffalonian drivers is the polar opposite of my experience with my neighbors. It is almost as if Buffalonians have split personalities: one, when we encounter each other face to face, the other when we are alone in our cars. The operative word is “alone.” Buffalonians more often than not drive as if there is no one else on the road, whether in another car or crossing the street on foot.
As a Sabbath observant Jew, I do not ride in a car from before sunset on Friday night until after nightfall on Saturday night. Consequently, twice on Friday night, twice Saturday morning and once Saturday afternoon, I walk to and from my synagogue. Each time I cross a major intersection, my life is at risk. It matters not at all if I cross the street in the dark wearing a reflector vest or if I cross the street in the middle of the day. By my nonscientific count, there have been at least seven incidents when drivers turning east on Sheridan have completed the turn with me in the crosswalk, coming within 2 feet of running me over. It’s not that they can’t see me; it’s that they don’t. I have seen three accidents caused right in front of me by drivers who have driven through the red light. That is only when I am there. One can only imagine how often the red light is ignored at that intersection each day. Now multiply that number by scores of other intersections where the same aggressive driving behavior is exhibited.
In most places in which I have lived, courtesy on the roads is a fundamental part of the social contract. This is the unspoken agreement: if I allow you to change lanes in front of me, you will allow me to change lanes in front of you when my turn comes. But there is no such contract on the Thruway. Few drivers will slow down to let a car merge in front of them. The protocol is to wait for the car in the next lane to pass, and pray there is space to merge. Whether space will appear is a matter of divine intervention.
This became apparent the other day as I was changing lanes. I turned on my blinker, edged over to the edge of my lane, and was pleased to see the driver of the car in the next lane slow down to allow me to enter the lane. I was so grateful at such a rare occurrence that I waved a thank you. The driver behind me, unaccustomed as he was to gestures of thanks, returned what he was certain was my one finger salute. He was so angry that he switched lanes to pass me, and as he did he made sure I saw the salute once again.
At the end of the day, the question remains: Which is the true character of the Buffalonian, the kind-hearted, warm-smiling, favor-giving, thoughtful members of my neighborhood, or the self-absorbed, mean-spirited, aggressive drivers on our streets? That question is not for me to answer.