Local Dispatch: The 'Pittsburgh Left' courtesy might be fading, but everyday decency remains
Was it the pre-holiday lows or a tense election season? Maybe the loss of an hour of daylight each evening?
Perhaps I took the societal pulse during a biased and angry time, but I noticed recently a certain Pittsburgh kindness slipping. After one month of observation, I concluded that the pre-emptive left turn -- the generous gesture in which an opposing car gives up its right of way, known as the Pittsburgh Left -- was put to rest, hopefully temporarily.
This turn might be a mundane act of kindness, but it embodies the Pittsburgh personality. Without it, I think, people would attempt far fewer left turns.
But left turns can be very important. In the amount of time I wait to make a left at a busy intersection, I sometimes could instead make a series of three right turns all the way around the block.
At the very least, the slight wave of a hand, the flash of headlights or the hesitant pause that amounts to "go ahead" can make a person's day a little better.
Lately though, I repeatedly found myself stalled at the traffic light as car after car flew through, until in the heat of yellow, I turned, often finishing in the red with another angry car hot on my tail.
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So, in the spirit of the season of polls, surveys and predictions, I attempted a rough statistical survey in hopes of a conclusion. I tallied how many times another driver granted me the premature turn.
Unfortunately, I must report I was denied in every attempt during the month.
More than a few SUVs gunned the yellow light. There was an articulated bus I dared not challenge. I can even report a boat of a Cadillac with a surprisingly baleful white-haired driver. Again and again, I was forced to abort my tentative inching forward.
To be honest, traffic is irritating. We're all in a hurry. One portion of the population tends to drive unreasonably slow, while the other drives too fast. The potholes could sink a 61C, and everyone still slows down at the entrance of the Squirrel Hill Tunnels.
Still, I grew increasingly aware in my state of conscientious driving of a certain ubiquitous mean-spirited attitude. People often cut me off, failed to merge at merges, refused to yield at yields and blocked any attempt to enter another lane when I'd mistakenly taken the wrong one. People screamed and cursed at me from behind their steering wheels. Anyone could argue that I'm just a particularly bad driver. You'll have to take my word that I'm at least better than my mother.
While driving, we wear a mask of anonymity and protection that provides us with the opportunity to deteriorate into our worst selves.
We rage from behind the safety of sheet metal and windshields. Just like when pouring out our unfettered opinions on today's version of the public bathroom stall divider, the Facebook wall, we seek blame in everything. Do we turn into the two old, grouchy men in the Muppet theater balcony in November of election years or when the skies revert to gray?
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But wait! There's hope! As I widened my search and plumbed my memory, I remembered innumerable acts of kindness that I had recently experienced.
I remembered the woman who parked next to me in a Squirrel Hill lot. I was dragging two sobbing, screaming, tantruming babies, who were clearly determined to repay my no-cookie disciplinary action with a parking ticket. I saw the meter maid poised at my meter, waiting for the final minute to tick off; she stared coldly at my harried approach. A Good Samaritan had dropped the necessary quarter in my meter.
I remembered my neighbor who calmly held my bleeding toddler against her white shirt while I commandeered her cell phone to call the pediatrician.
I remembered the fellow shoppers at Trader Joe's who brought my husband paper towels and offered aid when he discovered our son "making eggs" in the bed of the grocery cart.
I remembered the woman who tracked me down to return my wallet, the man who surrendered the last package of Morning Star Breakfast sausage at Giant Eagle and many others -- too many moments to list here.
What do all of these acts of kindness have in common? They occurred in person, face to face, one human reaching out to comfort and help another in real, fleshy life. Empathy. Humanity.
I rest assured that the Pittsburgh spirit endures, though perhaps not on the road. Why not give the gift of a Pittsburgh Left this holiday season? Happy Holidays!
First Published December 12, 2012 12:00 am