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A San Francisco roll call

stop sign

Time marches inexorably onward, and here we are in this fresh part of it called 2013. I begin my third year in this city, where time flies by — it truly does when you’re having fun — and other things do as well: the graceful fog, the busy people, the bicycles wending their way every morning, and, of course, the traffic. We all have somewhere to be, and we want nothing in our way. We get in our cars and, like time flowing forward, there seems little we can do to stop this headlong rush.

Yet, there is.

Right in front of us, on so many street corners, we take it for granted, this reminder, this opportunity — dare I say it? — this sign.

A ubiquitous cherry red octagonal with a large command written right on it.

A silent, stalwart, indefatigable crimson reminder to cease movement, look and listen to the moment, or at least to the cars and people opposite us.

And yet, I’ve noticed, so few of us do that.

I drive around a great deal more than I’ve ever driven in other urban areas (to write about driving a car in New York City would take an entire literary genre, say of the horror-sci-fi variety), and our fabled hills make driving a study in technical finesse (see my September 2011 Marina Times  column I left my rage in NYC.)

But what has really caught my attention lately has been how often people in their cars do not stop at the signs that tell them to. Rather than coming to a full legal stop, most of us just slow way down (sometimes not so way down at all), and proceed on through the intersection, seemingly not even conscious that we’ve just broken a law— a law that clearly tells us, in large white letters, what to do.

The word on the sign is not roll. The word, as all can see (unless they are blind, in which case, we have a lot more to worry about than one little sign), is stop. It is not a roll sign … it is a stop sign. No argument there.

And yet, we all think that where we have to get to is so important, that we can break this passionately colorful law dozens of times a day.

Presumably we are not blind — though, too often, drivers behave as if they are. Neither are we stupid. I realize there is much room for disagreement in that sentence, but we are at least smart enough to read one word at a time. So why do we execute what I now call The San Francisco Roll, rather than simply putting our foot on the brake and actually coming to a full stop?

Apparently, we don’t think it’s important enough to do that.

It probably isn’t, compared to other more urgent matters that consume us. But it represents something uniquely San Franciscan to me, this frequent reminder to stop in my daily travels: a call to consciousness.

Just think, if we rob ourselves of those few moments, take liberty with those few inches forward without pause, what else are we inching by with? Skimming off the top of? Losing in the process of our busy, busy business?

Life rushes by, so just for this tiny instant, brake for it.

Sit for a moment, let breath enter your body, all the way down to that pedal foot, and something like a cease-fire comes to be: a calm, an oasis, a smile instead of a grimace at being stopped on your way to — really, when you stop to think about it — nowhere. Try not to worry; the people behind you won’t mind. You’re only obeying the law, and, despite everything, they know it. We all had to pass the same traffic test.

I’ve begun to do this — to actually stop at a stop sign — and it feels good. Surprisingly restful. Profoundly sweet.

Also, because there seem to be an increasing number of cameras being installed on light poles around the city, it may save me from getting a ticket.

Traffic school really would make me grimace.

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