Drivin’ Up The Wall

Okay, Gloucesterites. We have to talk. We really need to sit down and have A Serious Discussion about something, and I want you to listen up – but we both already know the truth here, don’t we? It’s the elephant in the room. Our deep dark not-heroin-or-pregnancy-related-for-once secret.

We’re a city full of TERRIBLE DRIVERS.  Just awful. On the best of days, it feels like driving in a post-apocalyptic nightmarish cityscape where if a man flinches, the churning hordes will innately sense weakness and rend him asunder. On the worst of days, there’s beach traffic.



Because I’m a deeply introspective person who tends to think of the macroenvironment surrounding my collection of dented vehicles, I set out on a spiritual journey to understand WHY we drive this way. And by “set out on a spiritual journey”, I mean I cracked open a beer. What I found on my Vision Quest (Sponsored by Downeast Cider) may explain our curious driving habits. Let us begin.

– The abysmally narrow roads. In a normal city like Somerville or Mumbai, a road twenty feet wide would be either two-way with no parking, or one way with parking on one side of the street. In Gloucester, twenty feet wide means two way traffic with cars parked halfway on the sidewalk in both directions, but you have to pull over where you can and let opposing traffic pass. Or they have to pull over.

Plenty of room to park, seriously.

Plenty of room to park, seriously.

Or, you have a “Gloucester Traffic Standoff” which is like a Mexican standoff but with cars and beeping and sometimes a gentle mist of swearing. Apparently, according to a neighbor who turned her car around, followed me to my house, and openly berated me in my driveway, you should also cede right of way to the person who has lived in Gloucester the longest. I could not make this up if I tried.

It’s a constant monster truck rally. I’ve been here for a decade, my entire twenties, a third of my life. Still, to this day, I am dumbfounded at the subset of Gloucester drivers who carry on as if the roads are their own personal demolition derby. Large, somewhat illegal pickup trucks are a dime a dozen ’round these parts. They come equipped with exhausts that sound like whooping cough, and they screech their tires at any available opportunity like a mating call for the perpetually dense. Almost predictably, these classy stallions of the motoring world are driven by white guys under the age of 35, sometimes shirtless, usually wearing a baseball cap.

Be right back honey, off to get trashbags in my perfectly reasonable transportation.

BRB honey, off to get trashbags in my perfectly reasonable mode of transportation.

Let me regale you with a tale from ye olde last week, when my other half got into a very minor traffic accident. He was driving up the mountainous terrain of Commonwealth Ave at a reasonable speed and on the side of the road one is socially obligated to drive on, on his way to pick up our preschooler. Suddenly, a wild truck appeared, cresting the hill. Naturally, the driver thought, “I can’t see the other side of this hill, so it’s a great idea to just drive in the middle of the road as fast as possible! Wee hoo, let’s see if we can catch air at the top!”

Since my spouse has an innate survival instinct, he pulled to the right as much as possible to avoid being smashed like a beer can on a frat boy’s forehead. Unfortunately, he clipped a mirror, and dented our car a bit more. Of course, the offending truck continued blissfully on its path of dumbassery, blind to the consequences of DRIVING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GODDAMN ROAD, so now our insurance will go up because that guy’s a moron.

Infrastructure designed by sadists. It appears sometime in Gloucester’s past, we may have hired a thorazine-addled Ray Charles as our city’s street planner. Nothing makes sense. We have swirling masses of one-ways that can pull you in over on Washington street and spit you out by Burnham’s Field when you had a preference for ending up on Main. We have fake-rotaries where no particular rules apply and from which a set of makeshift laws governing them have been handed down from generation to generation, an oral history never committed to DOT approved signage.

All roads lead to this.

All roads lead to this.

And for some reason, we have a multitude of completely unsafe, blind, terrifying street intersections and it seems to not even bother people. There’s nothing like the thrill of pulling out of the end of a street where you can’t see more than 15 feet in either direction, and despite “thickly settled” being an understatement, the traffic is going Ludicrous Speed. It’s like a roulette wheel! Most of the time you can get out safely if you whip your head back and forth enough to check both directions without devolving into an epileptic fit, but once in awhile you get nearly pegged by a National Grid truck whizzing around the corner.

People who never leave the island. When I first moved here, I had heard tales of those who never left Cape Ann. I imagined these people as a simple, yesteryear folk who believed trolls, socialists, and hell existed beyond the bridges. And now I am one of those people who barely leave. I am totally part of the problem. I work here, I live here, I shop here – I once went 5 weeks and 2 days without leaving Cape Ann entirely accidentally. But this means that without much outside stimuli, we as a people have our societal habits break down. We forget what it’s like in the big, outside world where you can’t park 2 feet from the corner of a major intersection or take up both lanes of a two lane road because it’s Not Cool elsewhere.

Tourists. In the interest of complete fairness to my people, it isn’t entirely our fault. We have a huge annual influx of visitors, which is wonderful, because our economy needs it to survive and it makes Gloucester awesome. But sweet fuck, tourist drivers are just as bad as the rest of us, if not worse. They don’t use blinkers, don’t wave people through at difficult intersections (THAT’S HOW WE SURVIVE HERE, IT’S THE ONE THING WE DO RIGHT!), and they make sudden movements, like frightened rabbits. They drive 10 under the speed limit all the way to Lanesville because like gosh, Jeff, look at this view, isn’t it just precious? When I see an out of state plate, I have to assume the person behind the wheel has an IQ of “baked potato” and will brake suddenly and swiftly whenever the breeze blows.

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All in all, we have a ways to go as far as our vehicular behavior is concerned. It’s an “all of us” problem – I won’t excuse myself from making questionable-at-best driving decisions (constantly misjudging curbs is my weakness). But with a little humor, and a lot of patience, we can make the roads more tolerable. And by “tolerable” I mean I only shit my pants once in a rolling 24-hour period. We can work towards that. I believe in us, Gloucester.

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  1. “In Gloucester, twenty feet wide means two way traffic with cars parked halfway on the sidewalk in both directions.” Don’t forget the added bike lanes on each side. My biggest pet peeve is on Pleasant street where the metered parking narrows the road to one lane so you have to yield to oncoming traffic…usually a barreling monster truck 🙂 And don’t get me started on defensive driving insanity that is East Gloucester…

    • So true!! I recently moved to East Gloucester (well, from The Fort which prepared me for driving and parking insanity) and it is NUTS. Especially now with the near constant utility work. I live near Niles and it took me 40 minutes to get downtown to Main Street last Sunday, traffic was stopped around Espressos and was back to back to take the left onto whatever the heck that road it called at that point (Rogers? 127? 127A?). I almost missed breakfast at Sugar Mags which ends promptly at 1pm. Madness.

      • When there’s traffic, take the right across from Smokin’ Jim’s, continue to come out Brightside Ave. Way faster!

  2. You are hilarious and SPOT ON. A trip through “Por-Ta-Gee Hill” is like driving through the 7th layer of hell, but I welcome the advenure on this crazy little island.

  3. Maybe it’s because I drive in Boston at least five times a week but I think Cape Ann drivers are awesome drivers. If they have one fault it is that they are too damn polite. They will stop on Rogers Street to let another car into traffic even if that other car has waited ten nanoseconds for a break in traffic. They’ll stop and wave them in and maybe even carry on a conversation.

    Granite Circle is another story but I think of that rotary as not really Cape Ann. That circle is an appendage of Fresh Pond rotary. But once you learn the rules, never ever use your blinker it only confuses, and always accelerate through the rotary, it is a pleasant and exciting experience. Breaking either of those rules is like strapping pork chops on at a dog fight. No happy ending possible.

    • Which one is Granite Circle?

      • Where is Granite Circle? I would like to blame that on autocorrect but it was a brain fart. To atone I am pasting in the words on the marker dedicating the circle to Chester H. Grant.
        This Circle Erected by The Commonwealth of Massachusetts 1956 Is Dedicated to Honor Chester H. Grant 1897 – 1954
        A soldier and devoted citizen who faithfully served his community, state and nation in war and in peace. A member of the Yankee Division 104th U.S. Infantry. Served in World War I in France 1917 – 1919. He was cited three times for meritorious conduct under fire and received the silver star with palm. As a public official for the city of Gloucester he displayed great ability in the performance of his municipal duties.

    • see, i think boston isn’t as bad as most people think. cab drivers are idiots, but most people aren’t bad drivers and as a cyclist: they know you’re there and expect you. in cape ann, there’s so many people who have no idea bikes can use the road.

  4. In 1995 Joy and I went to Sicily for our 40th anniversary. Everyone was named Sanfilippo, Ciaramitaro, Amero, Ciulla, etc., just like here. We rented a car and drove around the island for ten days. If you don’t count the rear view mirror I ripped off on a 12th century column in the middle of a parking garage, or the driver of a propane truck who tried to force us off a mountain road (with a cliff two feet from our right side dropping a thousand feet to the sea) because we were driving too slowly for his taste, we came out pretty well, but the traffic, particularly in Palermo, made us feel quite at home. “Just like Glosta,” I said, as five lanes of cars attempted to navigate a street clearly marked with only three lanes, at sixty miles an hour in a 50 kilometer per hour-marked zone (do the math). What was not like Glosta was that everyone used their horns. All the time.
    When we got back to Gloucester we found the driving was much easier than we’d remembered. Everyone who fears/hates Gloucester traffic should drive in Sicily for a week or so.

  5. Very well written and on point! I wouldn’t mind driving on Cape Ann if 1- people learned the rules of the rotary, the cars IN the rotary have the right of way if you cannot enter the rotary without smashing into one then wait till you can, red yield sign is not just a “suggestion” – this also applies to the mini rotary at Gloucester Crossing which must have been some sick (fu)person(ck)’s idea of a bad joke – we did not need another rotary and it isn’t cute just because it’s small 2- if you are a tourist and have to either drive 15 mph to enjoy the scenery or slam your brakes on every time you catch a glimpse of the ocean please pull over and let those of us who are not on vacation pass. 3- the hell that is the intersection of Prospect, Railroad and Maplewood – here’s how it works if there are cars backed up on Railroad and Maplewood waiting to turn left onto Prospect they should alternate merge with the Maplewood side keeping some roadway clear for those drivers coming off Prospect onto Railroad drivers turning right off Prospect onto Maplewood or Railroad could really help out if they used their blinkers. 4- 5 corners in Rockport all I can say is if you have out of state plates and you hesitate for a nano second I don’t care if you have the right of way I am going to go – I do not have time to wait for you to figure it out.

  6. Love the narrative as well as the visuals!

  7. I have been working on an after-market device for autos that would be especially useful in G-town. It is a ‘straight-ahead blinker’. Use it just like a turning blinker to indicate that you do not intend to turn. It would work the balls at maplewood/railroad/prospect.

  8. ….one day, the fools who believe there is only one lane in the rotary (and/or those who drive 3/4 of the way around it in the right lane to exit) will be gone. Hooray.

    • times a thousand hugenjolly.

      actually compared to non-islander Mass____s , despite the amount of complaining we do people are actually half-decent at rotaries. but yes. INSIDE LANE if you’re not exiting right away folks!

      • Grazi, pidgeonclove.

        And that’s “Inside” lane…as in the lane closest to the actual circle/aka the “passing” or left lane were it a straight stretch of road.
        Interestingly, this is NOT how the local driving school teaches it. And they are wrong.

  9. Well, when the city was build, the only roads needed were bridle paths. With the advent of the automobile, they were widened and paved, and since then, poorly maintained. I never realized there was another way of life until I moved to a larger, much newer city, built for cars, on a grid system. It was a place in which it was impossible to get lost and potholes were virtually nonexistent. When I moved back after 5 years, the only thing I was worried about was driving on the island! You’re right, the traffic sucks, and you can grow old and die if you wait for a break in traffic or for someone to let you in coming out of Centennial Ave onto Washington Street. The only way to get from one end of the island to the other is to drive like you’re the only one on the road. And yet, in spite of the traffic here, especially in the summer, this little piece of oceanside paradise has it all over that landlocked, dusty, city of ideal roads in Texas, where everyone obeyed the rules as if they feared everyone else was packing heat. I bitch as loud as everyone else about the roads, but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

  10. Maybe it is because I grew up on the Northshore, or maybe because I’ve done way too much driving over the last decade, but I don’t really feel that Cape Anners are worse drivers than anyone else between here and Boston. And the entire area was built up on cow paths, just as ours was. I will admit though, that in the summer months with more traffic and more visitors, our roads are more of a challenge. It’s always easier to blame the outsiders….

  11. I moved here from East Boston where many of the drivers come from other countries where driving laws are either non existent or substantially different from our’s. I find drivers on Cape Ann to be very civilized and considerate. I think sometimes people stop to let others out to a point that can be dangerous for other drivers, but it is still considerate. I seldom hear people beep their horns or swear at other drivers. We do have some hairy intersections, like Prospect/Railroad/Maplewood, and East Main Street can be a little edgy, but you need a little edgy in paradise to keep you balanced.

    • EJ think you hit the nail here – want an expereince you never forget come drive this way in South Korea Yikes. Of course traffic was not as bad when I lived on the cape. Traffic did pick up in the summer time…was very sleepy hollow in 60′s vehicle wise. Now winter time that was a challenge if you lived down duley street or try to go up or down tucker street..

  12. Maryke Litchfield Gillis

    Don’t forget that some of those out-of-state plates belong to those of us who cut our teeth at the wheel on the Island! 🙂

  13. I have driven all over the US, Europe, and in Asia and I have to say that Gloucester drivers are far better then most. Gloucester driving teaches you to adapt to the road, to handle the unexpected, and to not be timid around aggressive drivers. Hate the Gloucester roadways not the drivers. We have just adapted to what we have been given to drive on, we have evolved into something beyond your typical driver.

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