Illustration by James Callahan
There is a place near you where, quietly and without fanfare, civility has taken up residence. Where hope for humanity is kindled right within the maelstrom of everyday life.
It's not tea at The Jefferson, and it's not The Fresh Market. It's your local four-way traffic stop.
I have been heartened lately, buoyed even, as I have considered this tiny pleasure. Yes, it is a pleasure to go through the four-way stop — and I go through a fair amount of them during my weekly routine. It doesn't matter whether I am at the busy shopping area of Old Buckingham Road and Alverser Drive or among the commuters at Lucks Lane and Walton Bluff Road: There is a single thread that binds us all into a common purpose of efficiency, orderliness and civility — abject fear. Fear can be a wonderful motivator to do the right thing. Believe me, I know: I went to Catholic school.
Recently I was talking with a friend about the fact that my kids have reached the age where my husband and I can leave them at home alone but I am still nervous about it. My 13-year-old daughter is a Red Cross-certified babysitter, but all the credentials in the world can't help you when you are left in charge of your own 11-year-old brother. "They are always arguing and being awful to each other," I said. "That's when you're with them," my friend answered. "When you leave and they are alone, they only have each other, and they will cling to each other until you get home." In other words, they will band together, motivated by a healthy little dose of fear: fear of being left alone, yes, but also fear that we might never leave them alone again if they blow it.
And so it is at the four-way stop. Without the automated direction of the traffic light, without the watchful eye of the surveillance camera, it's as if the grown-ups are gone, and we are left to our own devices. "Is it me next? No, please. You go ... " Peaceful hand signals, polite waves and grateful nods are the gestures of the four-way stop — nary a middle finger in sight; that's for the light at Belvidere and Broad. Sure, you get your jerks from time to time: someone in a big, damn truck in a big, damn hurry. But the overwhelming majority of interaction at the four-way stop is pleasant and smooth. It works as it's designed to. A minor miracle of modern times.
Is this true everywhere? I couldn't say. All I know is that when I am up north, everyone behind the wheel seems so ... so ... aggravated. It seems unlikely that they go from boiling teakettle to Zen master the second that they hit a four-way stop. So maybe our legendary Richmond politeness factors into it, too. You know what I'm talking about — your unwillingness to honk the horn too fast behind someone who is dozing at the green light. How you pretend to double-check your grocery list when you get stuck in an aisle behind an elderly couple trying to make a decision on canned fruit.
This, coupled with our fear that it will all go to hell in a handbasket if we don't follow the orderly structure of the four-way, is what is going to save us during the zombie apocalypse. Folks in New York or L.A. might be tripping each other in the streets, using babies as decoys and raiding the food pantries of churches, but Richmond will be under control, thanks to our many years of training at the four-way stop.
So it's my sincere wish that cities and counties and municipalities everywhere would do away with traffic lights and replace them all with four-way stops. And for goodness' sake, stop with the roundabouts. For it's in the swirling vortex of that ring of hell that civilization truly goes to die.