If I were to ask you to recount your day to me (which I would never do, mostly because I don’t actively seek out boring experiences) you would undoubtedly mention a few people or things you encountered that got under your skin. You’d probably refer to these things as “annoyances” or even “pet peeves.” I want to talk today, though, about those rare things that rise well above the level of simple pet peeve; I speak, of course, of the personal nemesis.
A personal nemesis is someone or something with which you are locked in a struggle characterized by hatred, obsession, and frequent clenching of the teeth and fists. It’s possible that the stakes of this struggle are quite high, with fame or fortune hanging in the balance. It’s more likely, though, that the stakes are by any sane person’s estimation fairly low.
This may cause you to ask why a low stakes struggle could drive a reasonable, well-adjusted person to obsession and hatred and the clenching of teeth and fists. My answer: I guess it doesn’t make sense, because you’re so logical and perfect. You should move away and found an independent nation-state. Your chief exports can be fish, timber, and self-righteousness.
Anyway, personal nemeses. Rather than continue defining the term, I will give you an example of one of my own personal nemeses. In fact, I’ll show you a picture of it:
I can barely stand to look at it. Yes, I’m talking about that traffic light, the one located at Columbus Avenue and 66th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I pulled this picture from Google Maps, and I find it less than coincidental that in this picture the light happens to be red.
Let me tell you the story of how this particular traffic light became my personal nemesis. First, you should know that I own a Vespa. Second, a quick lesson in New York City street geography and traffic flow: Major roads that run north to south in Manhattan are called avenues. Roads that run east to west are simply streets. Many avenues have traffic lights that are coordinated, meaning that if you time it right you can progress up or down an avenue and cross each street as the light turns green. However, if you get held up by traffic or simply go too slow, the green lights get ahead of you and the red lights eventually catch up to you, bringing your uninterrupted flight to a demoralizing halt.
Some avenues are better for timing the lights for uninterrupted travel than others. For example, I am going to name my first son 10th Avenue Bell, because 10th Avenue enables you to proceed from 14th Street all the way to 93rd street without stopping (assuming you are ridiculously good at scooting).
My wife, Melissa, and I live on 95th Street. We attend church every Sunday at 11 AM at a building on Columbus Avenue and 66th Street. We are almost always late and thus in a hurry as we ride from the apartment to church. Every second counts, and hitting all the green lights without getting stopped at a red light is the difference between quietly taking a seat to enjoy the organ music before the services start and walking in late after the service has already started and having to awkwardly try to get to a seat in the middle of the front pew. It’s a big deal, ok?
These goggles don’t photograph well. They look really great in person.
Thus, every Sunday morning when I turn on to Columbus avenue at 90th Street, I’m all business. I wait quietly at the light, knowing that I need to travel 34 blocks without stopping at a light. I know that while doing so is possible, it is also very, very difficult. I know that in maneuvering around taxis and delivery trucks I will need my scooter to become an extension of my body, like a centaur with wheels instead of horse legs. I turn around and look at Melissa. We both nod. I turn back around and fix my gaze on the traffic light. It turns green, and we’re off.
The first few blocks are easy, as I hit each light just as it turns green. However, as we progress down the avenue into the 80s traffic increases and our momentum slows. We begin crossing streets after the light has been green for a second or two. By the time we hit the 70s I can see in the distance that the green lights are now starting 5 or 6 blocks ahead of where I am, which means the light where I’m at is about to turn red. That’s when I turn it to 11. I begin taking risks. We begin to sing “The Distance” by Cake. This helps a great deal. I make up some of the gape, and now the green lights are only one street ahead of me.
As I hit the 60s, I notice that the lights of the next few streets all turn green at once, rather than progressively, as they have done for the past 30 blocks. This is an act of blatant cheating on the part of Columbus Avenue, but I remain calm. I weave in and out of cars and use the bike and bus lanes shamelessly. I can almost hear the organ music when BAM! The light at 66th Street turns red before I’m able to go through it. I am half a block shy of my goal.
Melissa and I wait at the light in a miserable silence thick with failure and contempt. She contemplates divorce. After several long minutes the light turns green again, and I scoot the half block to where we park and we enter the church building. We are late again, and have to walk all the way to the front pew, the red, pulsating gaze of our fellow worshippers on our backs.
I guess it’s possible that people stare not because we’re late to church but rather because of what I’m wearing.
And so it goes nearly every Sunday, flying through 33 green lights only to be stopped at the very last light, followed by an embarrassing march to the front pew as we enter after the services have begun. This isn’t to say that I haven’t beaten the 66th Street light a time or two. I have. But doing so is possible only in the unlikely event that not one single thing goes wrong during the race from 90th Street. So yes, the light at Columbus Avenue and 66th Street is my personal nemesis. I hate it. I obsess over beating it. And I often clench my teeth and fists at it when it beats me.
(Ed: We’ve moved since I wrote this. But we still take the same route to church, and my route to work now runs right through the light at 66th Street. Indeed, I am off to face it right now. I should go anyway, since typing with clenched fists is more difficult than you’d think.)