Home > Critic-At-Large > Traffic Engineers
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
You're driving west on Main Street in downtown Fort Wayne, it's mid-morning and you're late, the roads are still bad from the snow but you've got to get across town and into Aboite in 12 minutes and so you're reckless, skiing into stops, spinning out, hopping lanes, spilling coffee. You've been dodging buses for blocks now and you're racking your brain trying to remember exactly where the current Road Construction Hell is in downtown and what your battle plan will be when you finally meet it.
You've managed to avoid most of the surprise pockets of congestion on the way, the blocked traffic behind the slow left-turners, the innumerable bus stops, the lethargic salt trucks and ancient INDOT snow plows, the slow-moving lines of cars waiting to turn into municipal lots. You're making good time, actually, in spite of the late start and the road conditions. You've just crossed Clinton and you're in the right lane and as you scan the horizon you're pretty sure there are no buses in your immediate future. Smooth sailing ahead.
Except suddenly, inexcusably, the car in front of you has come to a complete dead stop in the middle of the block, right between Clinton and Calhoun streets; he's got his flashers on. You screech to a halt behind him and somehow, miraculously, you don't crash into his back fender. You're cussing, hitting your hands on the steering wheel, but the tiny, decent, rational part of you kicks in then, telling you to calm down, telling you that something bad probably happened in the car, an accident or emergency or something, and that you shouldn't be an impatient schmuck when something obviously distressing has occurred.
But then you notice that nothing distressing has occurred at all. What has occurred, in fact, is that an extremely slow-moving passenger has disembarked from the car and is slowly, painfully, gathering personal items from the car seat. The passenger is speaking to the driver from the sidewalk now, as if that's the normal thing to do while holding up traffic, it's like they're having a conversation in their living room now and not in the middle of a major thoroughfare of a medium-large Midwestern city. After a few excruciating, slow-motion, everything-underwater moments, the passenger finally turns and starts walking to the City-County Building as the driver casually shifts the gear into "drive" and inches away from the curb.
Of course, your decent "inner guy" has completely left the universe by now, his place taken over by Raging Apoplectic A-hole Driver Guy. You're swearing at the top of your lungs now. You can't believe the audacity, the thoughtlessness, the sheer gall, Jesus! A million epithets come to your mind and you try to say them all in eight seconds. You want to scream at this idiot, What are you thinking?! You can't hold up traffic like that! These are the rules! You don't blow the horn because even when you're insanely aggressive you're still a non-confrontational coward but you can't help yelling, inside the car, with the windows up, and you're jerking your head around like a fish on the line and maybe something about that action catches the eye, for the passenger has stopped walking and is now staring at you.
The passenger can read your lips now, the passenger can see you clearly now, and something changes then, suddenly you're compelled to stop yelling, something in the passenger's eyes has knocked you cold, has shamed you into complete silence. It's a defiant look, from the passenger, a sudden, defiant "screw you" look, to be sure, but it's also a weary look, a resigned look, an exhausted look. In the split second before you hit the gas and forget all this forever, you're confused, because you thought you were in the right here, damn it, in this tiny little morning moral drama, but the look on the passenger's face has unnerved you too much to trust anything.
One thing you do know, though, as you think about it, is that nobody goes to the City-County Building for anything fun. It's a deadening, horrible place. It's about marching in place, waiting, being barked at, showing ID, pulling out threatening certified letters, paying fines. It's like every other government center, the "corrective" centers, the grey walls, the lines, the herding, the harsh lights, the casually disinterested and casually demeaning workers. You know that everybody who gets trapped here isn't a criminal but you also know damned well that that's exactly how they're treated, like criminals, when most of them haven't done anything criminal in their lives outside of being poor or unlucky.
Of course you know you're generalizing here, greatly, wrongly, but you can't help it, and though you're no class warrior, you still start to wonder what it would be like, everyday, to be barked at and moved along and insulted and demeaned, when even the "relief" and "assistance" agents can't pretend to hide their contempt a little when they dole out their little stamps and cheese. You start to think about that "Poverty is Violence" bumper sticker you saw plastered on a Stop Sign a few years back, and you start to wonder if that's the truth, an explanation, or a prediction for the future. You start to think about that look on the passenger's eyes, then, and you start to wonder that maybe, if your tired of getting hemmed in and squeezed and poked and pushed along and "No, sir"-red to all the time, well, maybe a nice, leisurely walk across some blocked lanes of traffic might be just the thing to clear your head. And perhaps keep your dignity from getting lost in the pavement.
You think about all this, in that split second, stuck in traffic; you ponder it all. Then somebody honks at you and you hit the gas. And then you don't think about it at all.