Being the descendant of Eastern European Jews, I have always known a number of Yiddish words and phrases, but, like my parents, I never learned to speak that language.
What inspires this column is one of my favorite Yiddish words: kvetch. Although it has an equivalent verb in English, complain, kvetch has the great benefit of evoking its meaning.
When you say complain, it rolls off the tongue as pleasantly as compliment. You simply cannot kvetch without feeling its painful significance. It emerges negatively from the depths of your throat.
Such a word is not really onomatopoeic. Terms like honk, boom or buzz are because they were formed by imitating noises. Many Yiddish words, nonetheless, suggest their meaning by their very sound.
A person who is a shlemiel, for example, sounds like he’s “a born loser,” and that is just what that word means.
When I get stopped at a red light in Davis on my bicycle and it won’t turn green and there is no traffic approaching in any direction, it’s hard not to feel like a shlemiel waiting endlessly.
For this column of commuting kvetches, that is my first. Davis is a bicycle-friendly city. Yet our traffic lights seem incapable of knowing when a cyclist is there.
Like most Davisites, I am a pedestrian, a bike rider and I drive a car. I can kvetch about all three.
Entering town from northbound Highway 113 at Russell Boulevard, the light prohibits a right on red. That makes sense, because bicyclists and pedestrians, heading west on the south side of Russell, come from the right.
My kvetch regards the drivers behind me who honk to impel me turn right on that red. Those honkers never notice the no-turn sign.
Nearby, I have the reverse kvetch: Drivers who are unaware that they should safely turn right on red, unless it is otherwise posted.
The light at Sycamore and Russell lasts longer than most, because it stops all car traffic to let bicyclists pass on their own green. But often, when the southbound through-light is red and no one is approaching on Russell from the east, the lead car in the right-turn lane won’t budge.
Eventually, the bicycle light turns green and everyone who needs to go right has to wait another cycle, all because the first driver failed to understand his obligation to move.
Since everyone started using cell phones, my next kvetch has become more common: The light turns green, and the first driver in line just sits there, unaware that the light changed. I don’t honk in those situations, but it is warranted.
Where that is most annoying is when I’m in the back of a queue of cars waiting to turn left. The first person pays no attention to the green left-turn light, and as a result, cars at the end of the line are delayed another full cycle, because the left-turn red has come on.
Left-turn red lights are the source of another kvetch. They pretty much are a statement from the Man, which says, “I don’t trust you have good judgment to know if it is safe to turn left.”
Not uncommonly, I’ll be riding my bicycle early in the morning when there is no traffic at all. The northbound light at Sycamore and Covell, for example, might be green, but the left-turn light is red. No traffic is coming toward me. Yet the Man won’t let me turn left until the east-west lights go from red to green to red. And when I’m on a bike, my left-turn green may never appear.
A kvetch I have with Davis pedestrians is that they often enter crosswalks with their heads down, paying no mind to anyone. Didn’t their mothers teach them to look both ways?
I know walkers legally have the right of way. But if I am driving or riding my bicycle through an intersection, it’s common courtesy for a person on foot to let the vehicle pass. Yet so many pedestrians saunter into a crosswalk without looking up.
Because I follow the law and yield to people on foot, I run into another kvetch: drivers who cut in line. It’s not illegal, but if it’s my turn to go at a four-way stop and a pedestrian is delaying me a few seconds, it’s impolite for a perpendicular driver to shoot out into the intersection before I can move.
What’s up, by the way, with all the Davis drivers who never use a turn signal? Is it that it’s no benefit to them, so they don’t care about others?
Another kvetch arises on green left turns not controlled by arrows. I don’t know if this is illegal — but it should be. The car coming at me is slowing to go left. I start to make my left turn. But as I enter the intersection, the second car in line coming the opposite way swiftly passes the first on his right and I have to jam my brakes to avoid a head-on collision. Now that’s a kvetch!
I’m not certain if my immigrant ancestors would get so worked up over these trivialities. They had bigger issues in life to deal with. Yet I am sure that all of them would be full of nakhes — that is, “the pride a parent or grandparent feels from the accomplishments of his offspring” — to see my column published in The Enterprise.
— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]