We live in different worlds, my husband and I. I spend my weekdays in Davis; he spends them in San Francisco. Our worlds collide — sometimes uncomfortably — when we are both in the city, which happened, unfortunately, on our anniversary.
We spent the weekend in San Francisco attending a couple of fundraisers and celebrating our special day. This mix of activities led to much driving, from downtown to the Legion of Honor, to Golden Gate Park and downtown again on Saturday, with similar travels on Sunday.
We encountered lots of traffic. Lots of waiting. Lots of red lights. The streets were full of pedestrians, particularly downtown, most crossing with the “walk” lights, some crossing whenever they felt like it. I got tense. I got angry. Not with the traffic, but with my husband.
He was the driver. My issue was his treatment of pedestrians. Sometimes, when turning right, he sped up in order to beat them before they stepped off the curb. When they were crossing away from us, he occasionally cut in behind them after they’d barely passed. Sometimes a pedestrian paused or altered his or her stride to accommodate our car, and then I would get a little more angry.
But it was our anniversary, so I tried to catch flies with honey.
“Bob,” I said in a tone that made the word “patronizing” flit through my mind, “When I drive, I like giving way for pedestrians. It makes me feel good to wave my hand and let them go first.”
The truth is it makes me feel downright regal, bursting with “noblesse oblige” which I understand to mean, “I’m better than you are (or stronger or smarter or richer), but I’m being so very generous.”
When I do this in Davis, pedestrians often wave “thank you” to me. This encourages me to stop even for pedestrians who are crossing illegally in hopes of getting more thanks.
My behavior makes me feel virtuous, confirming my belief that I’m a person of high rectitude even though I suffer from minor flaws, such as an ever-so-slight tendency to hound and overcorrect my husband.
“You don’t understand San Francisco traffic,” he fought back. “In the city, everyone just wants the cars to go. Every car that stops and waits creates a line of vehicles behind it. Cars honk if you delay too long for pedestrians. And half the time when you’re waiting for a pedestrian, he’s on the phone, the light turns green and he doesn’t move.
“As a driver, you need to keep things going at the pace San Franciscans are used to. You need to be part of the dance, part of the flow of the city. Anything else and you become part of the problem.
“I stop for pedestrians more often in Davis,” he said.
Then, taking the subject in a direction that surprised me, he added, “Actually, no matter where I am, I hate it when I’m a pedestrian and drivers stop for me. Drives me crazy.”
“Yes. If they’re waiting for me, I feel like I have to speed up and cross as fast as I can. Not only that, but I’m supposed to smile and wave and be grateful, when really I’m just annoyed. If the timing is right for people to drive across, I wish they would just drive across.”
His statements introduced me to a completely new way of thinking.
Could there be others who feel as he does, possibly lots of them? Those Davis pedestrians who smile and nod and pick up their pace (some do, some don’t), who wave and marvel at my patience and generosity, could they in fact be seething?
Might they be thinking, “Just drive through, damn it. I’ll choose my own pace”?
At this point, I thought back to a conversation four years ago with my friend “Jane” who said one day, “I hate phone calls. I don’t like the ring; I don’t like the interruption. If the chit chat goes on for any time at all, I want to hang up.”
Until that moment, no one had ever clearly informed me that my gracious, friendly phone calls, none exceedingly long, might be unwelcome. It was a mind-bending moment that taught me to be more sensitive to the way people respond on the phone.
Now I need to rethink my pedestrian behavior, at least in San Francisco.
How many similar surprises lurk in everyday life?
Rules for passing the salt, anyone?
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org