Saturday, January 12, 2019

Local Rules

Anyone who goes to a new place must be aware that any little thing might be done very differently in that particular place. Let’s call it, “Local Rules.” Be cautious and pay attention for a while until you get the hang of it. That person’s behavior might be rude, or there might be a reason for it. Never assume that the rule on any subject is the same in the new location as it is back home. The penalties for insensitivity to local rules vary from you making a total ass of yourself to you getting your entire family killed in a twisted steel car wreck.

Manhattan Traffic

A simple example is Manhattan traffic. There are rules, and you had better learn them before you start trying to run lights or jump stop signs.

I should say “were,” because I don’t have a clue about the rules for driving in Manhattan these days. I haven’t driven in Manhattan since the mid-1980s. I had learned to drive in New York, but I had learned in Queens. My teacher was my cousin, nine years older than me, and he had a very good approach. “You’re going to be driving in traffic,” he said, “so you’re going to learn to drive in traffic.” He handed me the wheel immediately, and he directed me to the nearest transportation hub, which was Flushing, the terminus of the number 7 train and about half of the buses in Queens. It was also the destination of at least thirty percent of the car traffic in northern Queens on any given day. I already knew how to drive, way up on the sly, so I just went along.

My cousin had a motto, which was, “what man has done, man can do.”  It’s a good motto as mottoes go, and it does sum up how he felt about himself: if anybody else can do it, I can do it too. He was a pistol, my cousin. So immediately upon our arrival in Flushing he has me drive up Northern Boulevard. I was driving a 1962 Chevrolet Impala SS, belonging to my dad. As soon as he spotted a 1962 Chevy pulling out of a tight parking space, he told me stop! Park it here! If he got that one out, you can get this one in.  “What man has done, man can do.” I knew the basics of parallel parking, so I parked the car. Easy-Peasy. But Manhattan was a horse of a different color.
Later on, I became a taxi driver. It was the “warm body” job in New York at the time. If you weren’t dead and cold, you could drive cabs. If you wanted to make a living driving a cab, you had to go to Manhattan and stay there. That’s when I learned the conventions for driving in Manhattan.

It was very different than Queens, or anywhere else, for that matter. In Manhattan, there are Avenues that run north and south for many miles, and many Streets, “cross streets,” that run across Manhattan island from one side to the other. The Avenues are a big deal; the Streets not so much. There were many Local Rules to learn.

For instance, if you were going along with the flow of traffic downtown on an Avenue, let’s say, and you wanted to move to the right side of the Avenue to make a right turn, all you had to do was look straight out the window to your right. If there was not a car right there, straight in your line of vision, you could just change lanes to the right. No signal; no nothing; just go. You could assume that there was no one in your blind spot, because that would be stupid, and New Yorkers are anything but stupid. Every driver naturally arranged themselves into a pattern where no one was in anyone else’s blind spot. They all assumed that someone in the lane to their left who wanted to move to the right might just go for it. So, they hung back. It made sense. It was Local Rules. And it worked.
The visitors to the city who were not familiar with these rules could make a real mess. Remember, you’ve got to be careful until you figure out the Local Rules!

I drove cabs for a bit more than two years, nights, and I saw a lot of accidents. I was in a few, in fact. Mine were simple rear end, low impact, no injury accidents, which were the most typical accidents in Manhattan. Most of the traffic wasn’t going very fast, with the traffic jams and all, and most of us knew the rules. It was the out-of-towners who caused all of the death and destruction.

One of the rules was: if you are traveling north or south on an Avenue, and the traffic light ahead is a stale yellow, just hit the gas and run the light. If it turns red when you are fifty feet from the corner, go even faster. No one will be poking their head out of a side street, or starting to cross the street, just because the light was green for them. That would be stupid! See above: New Yorkers are not stupid.

Another rule was: never run a light like that on a side street. If you are going east or west on a Street, and approaching an Avenue, jam on those brakes, brother, because any car on the Avenue has the right of way to run that light. Over my couple of years, I had many opportunities to slowly pass big accidents late at night in Manhattan, and the bad ones were generally this kind of rule breaking, side street red light runners, and more often than not, the ones where I could read the license plates showed that the fools were mostly from New Jersey. I even saw one from Delaware. What were they thinking? I know, actually. They were thinking: what do these New Yorkers know that I don’t know? With a few drinks in me, I’m as good as any of ‘em! They can run lights, I’m running lights too! Thereupon they, and their families, died horribly.

Travel Tips

It is important to remember when traveling that you are not at home and your accustomed behavior may violate the Local Rules in the place that you are visiting. Remember, there is nothing special about the set of rules used where you live. Your rules do not travel with you. Your rules to not trump their rules.

The converse is also true: their local rules may violate the rules that you use back home. That’s okay too. Here’s an example.

I have been living in Thailand for ages now, and there is a custom among Thais that annoys several of my friends whenever they encounter it. I must admit that at first the custom kind of annoyed me as well. At least until I understood the reason for it.
In Thailand, like almost anywhere else, you will often see signs in a store window listing the hours that the store, or office, will be open. The sign might say, “Open Monday to Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.”  On most days you may visit the store or ride past and observe that it is open during those hours. Then one day, you wish to actually go to the office, let’s say it’s the office of the big cable TV provider in Thailand, and you arrive at the office at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, in my case after riding my bicycle for a hot, sweaty twenty minutes, and there is a sign on the locked door that says, “closed today.”  It’s a handwritten sign, in Thai, written in ball-point on a piece of paper torn out of a notebook. On that occasion, I found the situation very annoying. And that wasn’t the last time, or the most egregious circumstance.

This phenomenon began to make sense after I had had a couple of years to observe Thai people in work situations. The thing to remember about Thai culture is that people are more important than things, or money, or jobs. People come first. If you leave work in the middle of the day, or don’t show up for work at all, because a family member urgently needs your assistance, everyone understands immediately. Of course, you need to go! Your baby needs a doctor’s attention! You should be there! I then understood that the cable TV office was closed that day because the woman who manned the counter was needed elsewhere for family reasons. Her mother probably called her and said, “honey, get over here quick, I just damn near cut my hand off with a machete.”  In Thailand you do not need to contact your boss and ask permission when this happens. You just go, and bring the boss up to speed later on. Shops and small restaurants can be closed for days at a time for reasons like these. These are the Local Rules, and usually it all works out fine. Those cable bills will be paid, in a day or two. No effect on revenue at all! People come first.  

Isn’t that a great idea? To put people before mere things? I have always thought so. I was also pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the entirety of Thai culture is built upon the idea that everything works better when the greatest number of people are happy, or at least contented with the decision being considered. Always consider the equilibrium of the group when making personal decisions. The happiness of the group is of greater importance than the advantage of one individual. I thought, how wonderful! That’s how I feel about it!

I would not say that Thailand is perfect. No place on earth is perfect. I will say that most of the Local Rules in Thailand are designed to create the greatest possible harmony among the greatest possible number of people.

I can support that message.

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