Let us now praise...

The Boston driver

By James Parker
May 2, 2010

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The face behind the windshield, rigid with disdain; the peremptory surge of the engine; his cellphone, destroyer of the social contract; his middle finger, totemic, jabbed skyward as if to puncture heaven; and the smoldering sensation of impotence that he leaves in his wake ... Known nationally (and perhaps internationally) for his offensiveness and lack of humanity, the Boston driver has actually been slipping a bit in the ratings: last year’s AutoVantage survey of the Least Courteous, or most road-rageous, cities in the United States didn’t even put Boston in the top 10. (Although we tied with Denver as the driving population most likely to be found eating or drinking behind the wheel.)

Noting no improvement in local conditions, are we to deduce from this that the rest of the country is getting worse? That Boston driving is becoming the norm? Is it possible that everyone is starting to drive like a Boston driver?

I think not. The Boston driver is and shall remain a particularity, and a true product of our city. Look, there he goes down Beacon Street, middle finger aloft — and I would argue that he’s nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, allow me to mount a small experiment in appreciation.

Let’s home in a little on his characteristics. We can start by saying that the Boston driver is no anarchist. Not for him the Third World urban free-for-all, the low-slung car steered with a loose hand though a tumult of futile horns. He has, rather, a punctilious and unforgiving devotion to the highway code. Lights, stop signs, merges, ”right turn only”: these things matter. Should you err, he’ll let you know. Dawdle at a green light and he’ll shatter you with horn blasts. God help you if you go the wrong way down a one-way street. The law is the law, and within its framework he adheres carefully to a species of anti-etiquette, whereby every opportunity is taken to thwart, confound, or otherwise immiserate his fellow road-user. He will not ”let you in” to make your left turn: His heart and his lane are likewise sealed.

Now and again, too, we witness the inversion of his piety, the dark side of his moon: only where the rule of the road is properly enforced can it be flouted, grandly and scandalously, and at the moment of maximum inconvenience to everyone else.

A brute, a Pharisee on wheels: What can be said in favor of this person? Gentle Vermonters, on a jaunt to the city, are horrified by his coldness; hardy Granite Staters return home in disgust, their vehicles shaking with purgative heavy metal. But I love him like a brother, and I’ll tell you why.

He’s from Boston, to begin with. He was bred here, made here, by a confluence of factors including (but not limited to) Puritanism, potholes, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and the prolonged master class in survivalist driving that was the Big Dig. Religion, wrapped around the DNA, placed him in the harness of legality; caffeine put the pedal to the metal; trapped in construction in 1999, he cursed — from the bottom of his soul — the car in front of him; and riding the wild slalom of the Jamaicaway, or the deep and drunken curves of Storrow Drive, he discovered himself. Yes, Manhattan has its rushing chasms; Los Angeles its highway madness. But Boston has its roads — testing, serious, poorly signposted. Exiting the Mass. Pike for South Station is like picking a lock at 70 m.p.h. Where the Riverway and the Fenway merge, in front of the Landmark Center — do that five times a week and it’ll make a Nietzschean out of you.

Second, he keeps you on your toes. Or on your rims, or whatever the appropriate automotive metaphor might be. He keeps you alert, is the point. Look sharp, visiting motorist. Tune those reflexes. The friendly smile, the go-ahead: not in this town. The rustic illusion of goodwill will not serve you here. Why should city driving be pleasant? You live and you die and you drive alone. Perhaps you’ve come dreaming in from the suburbs, a nodding consumer, drowsily piloting your enormous car that has a name like a restaurant or a porn star — Escalade, Sonoma ... Beep! Parp! Wake up!

Finally and most importantly, let us praise the Boston driver for his irreducible challenge to our better nature — the ceaseless and splendid occasions he provides, in other words, for the exercise of charity in all its forms. Patience, tolerance, humility: You’ll need them. But virtue is rewarded. In a driver-eat-driver world, displays of simple good nature have the character of an outrage, a revolution. Cheerfulness becomes an offensive weapon. I urge you to give it a try. When a middle finger is unscabbarded in your face, the natural thing, the human thing, is to offer one in return. But don’t do it. The chain of misery runs from junction to rancorous junction, from node to node of abuse. Break it. Pay it backward. Blow him a kiss; and blow his Bostonian mind.

James Parker writes regularly for Ideas and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

(Christoph Hitz for The Boston Globe )