Felix Carroll: Like cats and dogs at the crossroads

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STOCKBRIDGE — Two men who may one day have to learn how to plow the snow from around a traffic circle — or not — were putting the pieces of a different circle together the other day.

Don Holmes and Jim Prince, of the Stockbridge Highway Department, were bolting together the pie-shaped pieces of the green, wooden shell that covers the cat and dog statue during winter at the intersection by the Red Lion Inn.

You know the statue: For about 150 years now, the stone cat has been hissing water at a fierce-looking stone dog. Some townspeople have long asserted that the cat is meant to depict the self-protective stance of locals when confronted by the vicious dog of tourism. Or maybe those townspeople are just projecting. Either way, each year, Holmes and Prince shut off the water valve and cover up the whole affair until spring, when the tourists return in bulk and the hissing can resume.

You know the intersection: The Berkshires hasn't any other intersection that comes close to it in terms of providing levels of opportunity for us to behave ourselves and be better citizens and, perhaps, even more interesting people. From space, it looks like a standard-issue, four-way T intersection. But on the ground, it's an invitation to civility and sportsmanship, or anger and anguish. Indeed, this intersection asks a lot from us, more than most intersections.

Specifically, this four-corner convergence of routes 7 (South Street), 102 (Main Street) and Pine Street kindly requests that drivers approaching it from the south, west and north come to a complete stop, and then proceed when the coast is clear or to otherwise wedge themselves through the mosh pit any which way they can. Drivers approaching from the east may do whatever in the world they wish to do, but definitely don't stop. One final thing: When pedestrians enter any of the four crosswalks, all sides are obligated to stop, of course, which affords the opportunity for a lot of hand-signal bargaining, waves, tight smiles and nods — kind of like at an old-timey tobacco auction.

Some days, it's a cinch. There's a bit of a satisfying do-si-do to it all: You do that, and I'll do this, and she'll do that, and look at us decent people working things out. Then there are those days, the busy touristy days, when the intersection could use a docent at each corner to explain how it's all supposed to work. Short of that, there's a lot of confusion with regard to right of way, followed by hissing and spitting like that cat and dog that Holmes and Prince are now muzzling for the winter.

Set against this backdrop, Police Chief Darrell Fennelly in August called for a traffic circle here. He himself stood up and suggested this — in front of others. In front of the Select Board, no less.

Brave man. He didn't anonymously scribble the suggestion on a napkin, tack it to the town fathers' front door, ring the bell and run away, like most of us would have done. No, Fennelly (who's still new in the position, and that may explain it) said it almost matter-of-fact-like, in the manner people around the world in charge of public safety would say such a thing.

If this intersection existed anywhere else in the developed world, there likely would have been a traffic light installed decades ago. But this is Stockbridge, a town that has never wanted a traffic light at that intersection, or anywhere else in town, and so there isn't a traffic light there, or anywhere else in town. On a planet strung with traffic lights and every form of earth-manipulated measures to foster efficient motor vehicular movement, this stands as an achievement, like it or not.

Chief Fennelly's recommendation echoed that of a 2004 traffic study commissioned by the town that endorsed installing a roundabout at the intersection, a proven measure made in other communities to process substantial traffic flow in an organized manner. The dog and cat statue in its present location could be a casualty in any future design scenarios.

The more likely scenario, however, is that those who daily navigate that intersection will watch as Stockbridge also never puts in a traffic circle as well.

In the meantime, just because that intersection will probably never, ever change doesn't mean that you can't. I did. This is my story:

Before that intersection at the Red Lion Inn entered my life a full 17 years ago, I was a selfish man. Maybe a little too cavalier about rolling stops. Maybe not appreciative enough of the contributions made to society by people who drive with Florida license plates. And indeed, I was a little too unprepared for an intersection that asks so much of us. Then, one traffic-jammed day, maybe 12 years ago, I was trying to cross from Pine Street onto South Street when a woman in a pickup didn't wait her turn and cut in front of me; no apologies, nothing. I honked, and she flipped me the bird and shouted something that sounded like, "Muck shoe, tadpole!" but may in fact have been less charitable than that.

This was my St. Paul on the road to Damascus moment, when I knew I needed to stop expecting this intersection to be like the others. From then on in, I do everything I can to avoid having anyone flip me the bird. You should do the same. Smile. Wave people in. Be patient. Because here of all places, it just doesn't seem right to do otherwise. This intersection exists right at the heart of Stockbridge's Main Street, which doesn't have a hair out of place from the time Norman Rockwell painted its likeness in 1967. There's something sort of anointed about the location — you know, it hearkens back to simpler, more modest times, which means that there's something sort of blasphemous about people waving the bird around like they're on the Southeast Expressway or something.

And that's just it: While Stockbridge boldly continues to do nothing about that intersection, the rest of us should take a page from Don Holmes and Jim Prince and just put a lid on it.

Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com.

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