What Philadelphia Traffic Jams Taught Me in 2012

New Year’s Resolution: Let’s all stop being so stubborn.

Fifteen years ago, I began driving from my far-corner-of-Montco home to my job at Philly Mag. For 15 long years, I’ve driven a good stretch of 422 and almost all the Schuylkill Expressway on my way to and from work. And of all the aggravating fellow commuters I’ve faced over the years—texting drivers, drivers using barbells, masturbating drivers— the worst, the absolute worst, are the drivers on my homeward journey who are going east on Market Street at 30th Street Station and making the left turn to get onto the westbound Expressway. I hate them with a passion. And I’ve hated them for 15 years.

The problem? Those drivers, who have two lanes and two left-turn arrows, pile their cars up into the intersection—what those warning signs call “the box”—and then sit there, blocking my lane of westbound Market Street as I try to make a right to get to the Expressway. In fact, they block all three westbound lanes of Market, eliciting angry honks and shouts, especially from me. The situation is exacerbated because the pedestrian crossing from 30th Street Station is timed to my westbound green light. So the greedy drivers who jump into the intersection on their yellow light get stuck in front of all the opposing traffic while scads of suitcase-hauling pedestrians cross in front of them. Then the box-blockers go, and then, in theory at least, we go—only we don’t, because by now our light’s turned red. In rush hour, you can spend 40 minutes sitting at that light, trying to make the right turn. Once in a while a SEPTA driver will perform heroic blocking maneuvers to get the flow going, but before you know it, the box is blocked again and everybody’s sitting and honking, because those stupid, greedy left-turn-makers are only thinking about themselves and not about everybody else, by which I mean, of course, me.

I can’t tell you what that intersection has cost me in blood-pressure medication over the past decade and a half. Shame prohibits me from sharing with you the new and dynamic combinations of curse words I’ve generated while sitting there helplessly, waiting and watching while those drivers—those detestable, degenerate, degraded drivers—roll into position to barricade the timid Wisconsin-license-plated minivan in front of me through yet another complete course of green-yellow-red. But in summertime, with the windows down, you may have heard me, a normally polite and soft-spoken gray-haired lady, doing my best (or worst) George Carlin imitation.

Well, you won’t hear me anymore.

A month or so back, I needed gas on my way out of town, and stopped at the Sunoco at 23rd and Walnut. Taxis had the pumps along 23rd Street blocked, so I had to resort to the ones on the Walnut Street side. From there, it was altogether too complicated to get back onto 23rd and go north to Market as usual, so instead I went west on Walnut. And turned at the sign for westbound 76. And approached my most-dreaded intersection from the south, rather than the east.

What a difference a change in direction can make!

There were no long lines of traffic now for me to wait in. No backed-up drivers in the box, no cause to curse or honk, no blood-pressure-rising wrath. A situation I confronted daily that made me absolutely frantic with fury—eliminated, just like that. Gone. Vanished. Done.

The question, I guess, is why it took me 15 years to realize that just because I’d always gotten onto the Schuylkill by going west on Market didn’t mean there wasn’t any other way to do it. What I’d had was a decade-plus failure of imagination. Remember that definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? For 15 years, I’d been insane. I’d been thinking human nature would change, that those opposing drivers would (ha!) see the light and stop being so selfish. But I couldn’t wait for them to change. I had to change myself. Now I take the Walnut Street approach every day.

I’ve been thinking about my recent change in direction this holiday season, in light of the country’s longstanding battles over gun control, health care, the fiscal cliff. We’re all so damned entrenched anymore, so certain of the validity of our positions, so unwilling even to try different approaches, to view matters other than the way we always have. We want the other people to change, not us. But intransigence isn’t proof that you’re adhering to your principles. It’s simply stubbornness. And it sets a terrible example for young people; it shows them that we boomers are just as hidebound as they always suspected we were.

It could be that the tremendous acceleration in the pace of change in the world makes us cling to what we think we’re sure of. But we’ve learned—reluctantly, painstakingly—to use our smartphones and iPads and Kindles. Some of us have even come to love them. We could come to love change, too. It’s what I’m going to work on in this New Year, anyway—new approaches, different directions, unaccustomed ways of thinking. I may even find new heroes—as in my profile of right-wing radio talk-show host Dom Giordano in our January issue. I want to break free of this comfortable but too-constricting box I’ve been stuck in. Maybe I’ll see you out there.