I was traveling south on Broadway a few days ago with a passenger in the cab when I unexpectedly hit bumper-to-bumper traffic at around 83rd Street. Traffic flows and stops flowing in predictable patterns in New York City and this was not a place, nor a time (9 pm), where I would expect to be suddenly at a crawl. I told my passenger it was probably just a double-parked truck and we should be moving along at normal speed within a minute or two.
But two, three, four minutes went by and we'd only moved three blocks. I was about to suggest that we detour over to Columbus Avenue, when the traffic began to pick up just a bit and I could see some flashing lights not too far in the distance. Since these lights were yellow and not red, I thought it was some kind of road work or utility work in progress and figured it made more sense to stick to Broadway rather than make a detour as the source of our delay had been identified and wasn't too far away. My passenger agreed. And then the traffic started moving a little quicker and in another minute I could see what was actually screwing things up.
It was a house!
A pre-assembled house on a flatbed truck and a couple of cars with "oversized load" signs on them were taking up two of Broadway's three moving lanes, causing all other vehicles to squeeze into one lane to pass them. Who in the world would ever have guessed that that was actually the cause of the problem! As I waited my turn to merge into a single file and then was finally released onto an unobstructed Broadway, I was reminded of something that has happened to me after all these years of taxi driving.
I have become a connoisseur of traffic jams. Some people are connoisseurs of fine wines. Some are connoisseurs of cigars. French cuisine, Chinese vases, antique cars, shoes, Barbie dolls, Civil War memorabilia, ladies' undergarments - they all have their connoisseurs. But I, the New York taxi driver, I am a connoisseur of traffic jams.
One of the great topics of conversation in a taxi is, "What the hell is causing the traffic to slow down?" (Or stop completely.) Usually it's the mundane - the expected delay as you approach the 59th Street Bridge; the inescapable backup as you head toward the Theater District around showtime; the agony you feel as you realize the Lincoln Tunnel traffic is backed up on 11th Avenue all the way to 55th Street.
Most traffic jams are quite predictable and can be taken in stride. Or avoided altogether if you're a savvy driver. It's the unpredictable ones that are the province of the connoisseur. There are two types: a) the jams where you never know what caused them. They're just there and no explantion is ever found. b) the jams that, when you do learn what caused them, you say to yourself (like with the house going down Broadway), "Who in fucking hell would ever - ever! - have possibly guessed that this was what was causing me to sit on my unmoving ass for the last half an hour?"
Here's one of my favorites of all time. It happened in 1997.
I had a fare to Forest Hills in Queens at about 7:30 pm. It was a lousy ride because it means a twenty-minute trip back to Manhattan, most likely without a passenger, at a time of day when it's very busy there. So it's a money-loser. But I never refuse a fare so off we went. When we were about five minutes away from my passenger's destination we hit a mother of a traffic jam on Queens Boulevard. It just suddenly came to a dead halt at a time and in a place where the traffic should have been moving along with no problem.
After trudging along for ten minutes I could see a multitude of red lights flashing in the distance and thought it was most likely a serious accident so, after a conference with my passenger, I took a detour and did some zig-zagging in order to get him to his apartment building. It was a great move which saved us both some wasted time.
After dropping him off, I found myself quite near to whatever was happening, but fortunately I was on the opposite side of Queens Boulevard and the traffic was moving along pretty well on that side of the street. I naturally tried to see what was going on but all I could see were police cars with their lights flashing. I was ready to forget about it and just get back to Manhattan as quickly as possible when a minor miracle happened. I got a fare going back to the city, a middle-aged woman en route to Midtown.
After getting over my shock and joy of getting this lucky ride, I of course asked her if she knew what was going on. And, miracle number two, she did! I was certainly expecting to hear a story about a gruesome accident or a disturbing crime - but no. Here's what she told me...
It seems a woman who was an amputee went into a hair salon to get a new haircut. She was so displeased with the result that, as a protest against the morons who had done this to her hair, she decided to take off all her clothes and just sit there. The salon people called the police and when it went out on the police radio that a nude, female amputee was refusing to put her clothes back on, every patrol car within ten miles showed up. The traffic jam was caused by all the police cars which had nowhere else to park, so they just blocked up the boulevard.
Well, of course. That's what was causing the traffic jam. Why didn't I think of that in the first place?
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