Hey, I’m Driving Here!

I recently returned from a trip to Honolulu. I had accompanied my wife who was making a speech at a conference there. Tough duty, but someone had to do it.

My wife began her speech by suggesting that, contrary to what instinct tells us, Honolulu and New York City have a number of things in common. Both are on islands, both have tall buildings and both have lots of tourists. And both have poke shops. Poke, for the uninitiated, is pronounced “po kay” with the accent on ‘po’. It is a

“preparation of chopped fish, seasoned with sea salt dried in the sun; limu (seaweed), giving it another layer of texture and flavor; and inamona (roasted and crushed kukui nut, or candlenut), lending an oily richness.”

That, according to CNN Travel. https://cnn.it/2KK4LJE Also per CNN, with whom I am loathe to argue, on this subject at least,

“the most popular poke these days is cubed, raw tuna tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil, raw onions, scallions and red chilies, but Hawaii’s seafood counters offer plenty of variety. Flavorings may include wasabi, spicy mayo, kimchi or oyster sauce, and the seafood ranges from salmon to clams to raw, chopped crab — shell and all.”

Re eating chopped crab shells, to each his own, I suppose. The real point is that there are poke restaurants here and there in New York City.

There is, on the other hand, a fundamental distinction between Honolulu and New York City. I refer to the habit of drivers in The City, to honk their horns incessantly at the slightest provocation or, in many observed cases, no provocation at all. The honking goes on 24 hours a day in some parts of town. You will not, however, find this in Honolulu. The aloha spirit has imbued Hawaiians with an innate resistance to honking their horns and engaging in the practice is seriously frowned upon.

You, no doubt, will immediately think of other distinctions between Honolulu and New York City, but for present purposes, stick with me on horn honking. Because the practice is virtually universal among NYC drivers and intrudes into your unprotected consciousness whether you want it to or not. Like unprotected sex, the effects of prolonged exposure to horn honking can stay with you for a long while. After a few months of this punishment, I concluded that the practice warranted some deeper thought.

For example, under what circumstances and for what purposes, do New York City drivers honk their horns? Are there different honking techniques that signify something that is worth knowing or at least attending to? Herewith the answers you’ve been waiting for.

Circumstances first. Based on extensive, though obviously not scientific, observation, horn honking in NYC has become an autonomous response to driving in traffic. It happens for reasons about which I suspect many perpetrators are unaware. They may even be unaware that they have honked. It just seems to happen.

I have seen/heard vigorous, often extended honking (as in, minutes of uninterrupted beeeeeeeeping) when:

  • Light changes and car in front hesitates one second before moving out
  • Car is approaching pedestrians crossing against the light
  • Car is approaching pedestrians crossing with the light
  • Turning vehicle is blocked by pedestrians exercising their right-of-way; driver behind goes berserk
  • Traffic moving too slow
  • Traffic not moving
  • Vehicles stopped to let out/take in passengers
  • Vehicle changing lanes, with or without signal
  • Street fair — traffic not moving at all [9th Avenue shut down as I write, cross streets at a standstill & horns a’blazing. Note: street fairs are common on NYC weekends, yet each time seems like the first time for many drivers]
  • Vehicle is blocking an intersection — the worst offense; serious serial and continuous honking follows

Those situations share some common features, the clearest of which is futility. Nothing much changes in response to the honking, except the relative peace and quiet of the immediate vicinity.

And, honkers, especially the taxi drivers which seem omni-present throughout the congested parts of The City, appear to simply honk out of frustration, not really expecting any behavior to change. Honkees, understanding that there is not much they can realistically do to relieve the honker’s frustration, simply ignore the honking. Everyone seems to understand this and yet the honking continues.

As for the deeper causes, well, that’s complicated. Watching a lot of people repeat a behavior with no apparent hope of seeing anything change is itself somewhat disturbing. Pedestrians here, officially, have the right-of-way. They know it and, being New Yorkers or tourists unaware of their surroundings, exercise it.

Commonly, a car will approach an intersection green light with turning signal on and pedestrians, also with the green light, will just walk right out in front of the car. It is unusual for that first car to honk at the pedestrians who, after all, have, officially, the right-of-way, which fact everyone knows and more-or-less accepts, unless they don’t. But the second car in line, as suggested in the above list, often lays into the horn, knowing full-well that the pedestrians are not going to hurry, at least no more than “New York normal,” to clear a path for the cars and that the car in front is helpless to change that. It’s as if the second driver simply wants everyone to know:  I’m here and I’m not happy!

And maybe that’s the root of the matter. In the overcrowded, seemingly indifferent world of urban living, people just want their existence and their suffering to be acknowledged. They honk to say “hey, I’m driving here!” Compare Dustin Hoffman’s famous line in Midnight Cowboy.

The problem is compounded by modern technology. Look at any crowd on the street and chances are a large percentage will be using some form of sound-blocking or displacement technology. This technology enables pedestrians to block out much of the urban background noise by either streaming music directly into the ears or enabling a conversation to occur with another person elsewhere. The telltale clue are the now ubiquitous earphone wires or the white wireless “ear plugs” sold by Apple. It is also common to see young people with full size noise-cancelling headphones made by Bose, Beat and others. These devices permit a degree of near total dissociation from everyone around the wearer.

No wonder drivers feel they are not being acknowledged. Their only hope is to sound blast their way through the resistance forces thrown up against them by modern technology. So, in the end, the cause of much of the honking in New York City may simply be traceable to the isolationist tendencies of young people selfishly seeking solitude among the chaos that surrounds them. I knew it was them all along.