He’s Going the Distance

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.)

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14 Responses to He’s Going the Distance

  1. Ryan says:

    This was really funny. I love that the Google photo of the intersection shows the light as red.

    There was a guy in college that hated us. We nicknamed him Nemesis. Every time I hear the word nemesis, that guy comes to mind. I wonder if he still hates us.

  2. Davis says:

    A guy? Just one?

  3. Ryan says:

    Just one guy. He was a big guy.

  4. Layne says:

    Your writeup makes me want to live in New York. Sounds like it would be kind of fun sometimes.

  5. craig says:

    my personal nemesis was the light at 100th and columbus. it was out of sync with the rest of the lights and you had to stop and wait for the next cycle without fail. this was particularly frustrating because there was no logical reason for it being out of sync. i was ok with stopping at 66th because it is the last street on CPW before it becomes one way

  6. Braden says:

    Layne, it’s only fun to live in NYC if Dave is there with you all the time. Do not move there. It is not worth it.

    Dave, your ability to find the hero’s quest in everyday life, and to write it up in a way that fully conveys the drama of it all is one of your most amazing qualities.

  7. Ben Pratt says:

    Whatever DDDT.com is paying you, Davis, it’s not enough.

  8. Wade says:

    Davis, this reminds me of my daily adventures with the eastbound 6th south traffic. The stoplights are timed perfectly for anyone in the flow, but I have to enter the flow from the north (a left turn), which means when my light turns green allowing me to turn left into the flow, I’m already behind the 8-ball because the 6th south light at my intersection has just turned red, and I’ve got like 8 seconds to catch it at the next intersection before it turns red as well and its all over. I’m pretty sure half of my commuting fuel consumption is spent on that beating that one light. Especially if someone is ahead of me in the left turn lane, I’ve gotta cut the corner and turn before they do (they usually don’t understand the time crunch we are under). Anyway, not really my nemesis, but my daily challenge. My nemesis is probably Nemesis.

  9. Christian says:

    poorly timed lights are seriously the worst.

    My personal nemesis is finding jeans that fit a no-bum, long-legged guy. Some important person in the clothing industry long ago must have promulgated the idea that the vast majority of people over 6 ft weigh 400 pounds.

  10. Rebecca says:

    my personal nemesis is a relative to yours. nothing, and i mean NOTHING gets my blood boiling like waiting, whether it be in line at the grocery store, at a dr.’s office, or any other place where the time that I will be served is uncertain and in the hands of those sadistic little cashiers and receptionists. ex: a couple months ago I was at walgreen’s waiting for a prescription for my sick baby (who I stupidly brought with me). when i dropped the prescrip. off, I asked how long it would take. usually, i just go home and pick it up later but my little one was really sick and the pharmacist said it would only be 10-15 minutes. i diligently watched the minutes pass by, and then the seconds. right at about 20 minutes and still no prescrip., i approached the pharmacy window and asked how much longer it would be. they acted like they didn’t know who i was! they said it would be about 5-10 more minutes. lest all my previous waiting be in vain, i again sat and waited. i was seething as it approached the 10 minute mark and STILL no medicine. i got up from my chair in a huff, gathered my other purchases with my baby and went to the front cashier to check out. you better believe she got an earful from me. right as i was walking out the front door, lo and behold, “rebecca bell, your prescription is ready in the pharmacy.” i charged back there and the other customers, noticing my red face and angry stomping, let me cut in front of them in line to get my medicine. i proceeded to let loose on the pharmacist as well. do you think i go back to that walgreens? you bet. but not without my head hanging low, in hopes that no one recognizes the crazy lady at the pharmacy.

  11. Mary says:

    craig was not ok with that light at 66th. He would get so mad on the way to church (would we of course be running late) that he always wanted us ALL to just get out of the cab and walk the last half block to church. I would still be finishing by make-up, because we had gone 60mph for the last 15 blocks through green lights, so we couldn’t get out. I needed that light.

    Parker still talks about his arch nemesis from NY, Anderson. He talks about him more than his old friends from NY.

  12. Rachel says:

    To Christian:
    “the vast majority of people over 6 ft weigh 400 pounds”

    Welcome to America.

  13. Troy says:

    Davis, as a Professional Driver (I get PAID TO DRIVE to dental offices and sell stuff) I have perfect empathy for you. I call “rush hour”–“amateur hour” because that’s when all the amateurs who only drive twice a day come out of the woodwork and spoil it for us pros.

    My nemesis is a front desk lady at this one office I regularly visit. She is the Gatekeeper of Gatekeepers.

    In most offices I call on, I am a heavily anticipated visitor. A welcome, refreshing gush of humor, confidence, and optimism to lift their spirits from the doldrums of dentistry. I come in and I am greeted like Norm on Cheers. I wink to old ladies, and give a sideways glance and reminding tap on my wedding ring for the younger ones. The Dr recognizes my voice and peeks his head out of the operatory and gives me a hearty wave and holds up a latex finger to tell me he’ll be right with me (yep, I sold him those gloves). I give a confident nod (if he’s a younger Dr, the nod is upward) to acknowledge him in return. In the meantime, staff members crowd around me like children to a storyteller to see what gifts or news I bear that day.

    But, the Nemesis. Something about a Nemesis is they have a profound and inexplicable power over you. They have unique access to your greatest weaknesses, and they exploit them to the fullest extent. When I enter the office of the Nemesis, whose name shall not be mentioned (not to protect her identity, but because it is too evil to utter), I am like a first-year girl scout selling thin mints in the red light district. The dimply smile is gone, the shoulders slumped, the eyes downward, the confidence instantly obliterated. I glance up and happen to catch eye contact with a young assistant — my hope springs — but then I realize she is running for cover in anticipation for the wrath about to be unleashed on me by the Front Desk Lady. “CAN I HELP YOU?” she barks, her eyes glowing like Medussa, knowing exactly who I am and what I’m there for…yet we play out this charade every other week like it’s the first time she’s laid eyes on my pitiful character. “Is…is Dr. Grey available?” What happens next is probably the same type of reaction the Gatekeeper of Hell would give someone who asked for permission to talk to Satan about the prospect of perhaps getting out of there. Upon leaving the office, I realize my Nemesis has yet again not only beaten me but demoralized me. I then go through several stages of emotion, each reaction markedly different from each other. The whole process takes about 15 minutes to run its course. My next call is 5 minutes away, so I usually spend a solid 10 minutes in the parking lot, rehabilitating my self respect.

    Then it’s back to kissing babies and selling boatloads of dental stuff. But, no matter how many wins I get that day, no matter how many hoards of staff and Drs trustingly look to me for counsel, in the back of my mind, I’ll always know that I was beaten that day by my Nemesis.

  14. maweesa says:

    my NY nemesis is fairway… i think it should be called hellway. i went in yesterday on my way home from work to buy a couple of treats and turned right around and walked up to westside market where i probably paid twice as much but left without wanting to murder the anyone who got in my way.

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