Sunday, August 04, 2013

catch me if you can

"See the arrow?  Officer, I didn't even see the Indians."

It is the punchline of an old joke.  Spoken by a driver stopped by a policeman for going the wrong way on a one way street. 

I lived the setup to that joke on Friday. 

Our town square in San Patricio has had two-way streets around it as long as I have been visiting and living here.  Friday morning I drove into the village to pay my telephone and internet bill.  To avoid the rather slow bus in front of me, I turned left at the square.  And stopped.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted something new.  The signs at the top of this post.  I think it was the rather battered and confusing international symbol for "no entry" that caught my eye.  And then the arrows indicating I was going the correct way if I were a spawning salmon.

Since I am not, I turned around and went the correct direction.  That bit of ovine compliance surprised me.

Apparently a large number of my fellow drivers were not in a bleating mood.  While I stood in line to pay my bill, a steady flow of cars and trucks (especially trucks) were not in the least bothered that the new signs informed them they were violating the law.

My favorite was the middle class young woman driving a 2012 Explorer.  She saw the sign.  Paused.  Looked down the street to see only two cars coming at her, and decided to drive against the arrow.  And then parked in a no parking area.

That got me to thinking about driving in Mexico.  A well-meaning northerner told me when I first arrived that I needed to learn to drive defensively.  Within a day I knew that was the worst advice I had ever received.  Defensive drivers are dead drivers.  (I think I remember my father telling me that in my youth.) 

Driving in Mexico calls for every instinct ever taught to a fighter pilot.  Mexican streets are filled with more targets of opportunity and obstacles than the skies over Hanoi in December 1972.  And I have developed my own coping mechanisms.

Take speeding.  Speed limits fall into that category of laws that the public often treats as suggestions. 

You know the type of law.  Where some group, lacking the power of moral suasion, relies on the brute force of the state for compliance.  Laws like attempting to control the use of recreational drugs, smoking in restaurants, or prohibiting people of color from using white water fountains.

Speeding here is exactly what is in Oregon.  Drivers treat the signs as suggestions.  Finding the speed that the conditions of the market will bear.  Knowing full well that enforcement is spotty and that the financial penalty is minimal.

Of course, when it comes to one way directional signs, failure to comply is not necessarily an act of liberty.  Most of the signs are rather difficult to see.

Take this one on the same corner.  Until a couple days ago it had a point on both ends to indicate a two way street.  It has been there a long time.

But I have never noticed it.  It is painted well above eye level.  If my postman had not pointed it out to me, I would have completey missed it.

What amazes me is that, even during the height of our tourist season (and we are currently deep into it), our streets are a good example of how a free people can live their lives without a lot of external regulation.

We may need to dodge a cornucopia of cars, trucks, baby strollers, pedestrians, scooters, bicycles, dogs, cats, goats, horses, and umbrella-wielding grandmothers (along with streets clogged from double-parked cars and trucks), but it all works.

Several years ago I was driving on an autobahn just outside of Frankfurt when a German driver cut me off without signaling.  The driver behind me began flashing his lights and motioned for me to pull over.  I did.

We got out of our cars.  He was German, but as is often the case, his English was better than mine.

Him:  "Did you see that driver not signaling."

Me: "Yeah.  He cut me off."

Him:  "I have his license plate number.  You will come with me now and report this to the police."

Me: "Really?"

I followed him.  At the first exit, he turned off -- and I continued on my way.

It made me feel very Mexican.  The kind of guy who would never have corrected his own error on a one way street.


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