One of the more interesting cultural differences that I’ve noticed between New York and Los Angeles is the use of the car horn – and by extension, the middle finger. In L.A., where I grew up, traffic laws are much more strict. As opposed to New York, traffic lanes are not merely a suggestion, people are ticketed for cruising through stop signs, and jay-walking is actually punished – as is the use of the car horn. You see, the car horn is technically only supposed to be used to avoid an accident. I’m not sure if that is specifically the law here in NYC, but it is in Cali – they’ll ticket your ass if they feel like it.
In L.A. use of the car horn usually means one of three things:
1. “I don’t want to die.“
2. “OMG I just saw my friend on the street.“
3. “I’m outside your house, let’s go where we need to go.“
Recently, the increased use of the cell phone has drastically lessened the need for the horn in the latter two scenarios, leaving the language of the car horn a primarily alarmist one. Drivers in L.A. will, if given enough provocation, use the car horn in anger (if, for example, a car has been waiting at a green light for 30 seconds or so), but a more powerful, muted expression of anger and frustration is much more commonplace, the middle finger. I’ve seen every member of my family use their middle fingers while driving. I’ve seen sweet old ladies flaunting theirs, doe-eyed children, middle-finger bumper stickers and mudflaps; it’s a powerfully silent – and legal – method of telling another driver to fuck off. I’ve waved my middle finger to tens of cars behind me. I’ve pointed it in fury at drivers who dangerously cut me off and I’ve used it with a smirk at people who were driving 10 miles under the speed limit. No one has ever been shocked to see it, and in fact they are usually flipping me a bird of their own. We each forget the instance within minutes, if not seconds. These are, of course, the L.A. rules.
In New York City the car horn has a much more rich vocabulary. In addition to the L.A. phrases, here the car horn can mean:
1. “Please move out of my way, I don’t really feel like moving around you.“
2. “The light just turned green and I’m letting you know in case you didn’t see it.“
3. “Hi cab driver, I’m also a cab driver.“
4. “Hey pedestrians crossing the crosswalk, I just wanted to let you know that I’m here.“
5. “Your ride to the airport is waiting outside.“
6. “I don’t like traffic.“
When I first started driving in New York, I didn’t understand the breadth of the language – I understood the car horn more as a means of communicating shock and anger – so I would answer these casual cries with my own means of expressing petty annoyance. As you may know if you’ve spent time in New York, a middle finger is anything but petty.
The language barrier was illuminated during my first couple trips in New York by instances like this:
Mafoo waits at red light in front of seven cars.
Light turns green and immediately six of those cars begin blaring their horns.
Mafoo thinks, “What is the holy hell is wrong with these people??” and gives 1/5th of a wave goodbye to the screaming chorus behind him.
Mafoo calmly drives down the street and notices a car driving alongside of him, he looks over.
Deeply offended and irate New Yorker stares at Mafoo with fire in his eyes and tells Mafoo he would like to fight him.
Mafoo has to think for a second before he realizes that this driver is angry because of one of Mafoo’s fingers.
Mafoo ignores driver and drives on, quite confused.
This happened several times before I retrained my left arm from automatically shooting out the drivers-side window. I can understand the interpretation of the middle finger as primarily a symbol of offense, but I cannot understand the attempt at expressing any nuance with a car horn. The car horn really has only two settings: on and off. Perhaps New Yorkers, known for their penchant for chatter, feel the need to express themselves more often while in their cars. But the problem is this: the restriction of the syntax into essentially a binary system, and the added restriction of an extremely limited time-frame in which to arrange said system into anything meaningful (i.e. the window of time one has to communicate with another vehicle is usually a matter of seconds), makes for a fundamentally dumb language – one that consists of the choice between shrieking or not shrieking.
Just as the naked sound of a gun firing will never be adequate at expressing, say, serendipity, a blaring tone will never be adequate at communicating, “Look, I’ve had a rough day. My boss is on my ass about a deadline, I’m worried about making rent this month, and I’m worried about my Grandmother’s health. If you could pay a little more attention, it would help me get home more quickly to deal with all of this.”. The translation will be, “Fuck you!“.
Being an artist, I am often confronted with the question of the utility of art, or the function of it. In my opinion, the most that art can ever do is attempt to communicate that we are all of infinite complexity and worth. Things that increase our empathy and awareness of others are good, things that decrease or limit our empathy and awareness of others are bad. When I’m high in a Manhattan building listening to the polyphony of car horns in the streets below me, I don’t hear an uniquely urban harmony, I don’t hear ancient mating calls. I hear a big chorus of “Fuck you!”.
I’m over car horns. I’m so glad I don’t drive anymore and my speech is no longer limited in such a terrible way. Now I take the subway, and I hear actual phrases such as “excuse me” and “could I just get by you?“. It is really just so much nicer than a blaring “Fuck you!“. Usually the closest thing to a “Fuck you!” I ever get is the usual “could you move that tuba on your back?“. I don’t even really feel the need to tell them it’s actually a french horn, I just appreciate the fact that they used actual words.