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Versed in Traffic Control

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aaron Naparstek knows the exact moment when the car horns pushed him over the edge and turned him into a vigilante poet.

It wasn’t just the constant noise outside his Brooklyn apartment window when he was trying to work from home. It wasn’t just the sonic blasts from tractor-trailers that set off car alarms up and down the block. It was the sheer futility of it--that New Yorkers believe beeping their horns actually can dissolve a traffic jam, the way some people think that the more times they push an elevator button, the sooner the car will arrive.

While working on his health-care Web site--which includes, among other things, meditations for stress relief--the noise made him irritable. He couldn’t concentrate. He got to the point where he could distinguish different taxi models just by the sounds of their horns. Then, one day, a guy in a blue sedan just made him snap.

“He was leaning on his horn,” Naparstek said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Toot, toot.’ It was: ‘Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.’”

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Naparstek decided that, if the sedan was still honking by the time he got to the refrigerator and back to the window, it deserved an egg on the windshield. The first one hit the trunk. The second hit the roof. “Clearly, I’d gone insane,” Naparstek said. “But I was thinking, ‘I want windshield.’”

As the egg splattered right on target, the honker got out of his car and ranted at Naparstek, threatening to come back and kill him while he slept. And while the driver made his death threats, the line of cars that were stacked up for blocks all started to honk their horns.

Naparstek realized that, while fleetingly cathartic, the egg-throwing had added to the problem. So he tried a nonviolent approach. Prompted by his Zen meditation training, Naparstek wrote a flurry of haiku--three-line stanzas in the classic Japanese 5-7-5 syllable form--and taped them on lampposts along Clinton Street. He dubbed them “honku.”

You from New Jersey

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Honking in front of my house

In your SUV.

Smoking cigarettes

Blasting Hot97

Futilely honking.

Drivers couldn’t read his poetry from the street, so Naparstek wasn’t expecting much of a response. But then other honku started to appear--ones he hadn’t written. Soon the lampposts were papered with 17-syllable verses, some printed out, some scrawled spontaneously under his.

We walk happily

You honk in snarled traffic

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Who gets there first? Us!!

Gazing at windows

I think of the children’s sleep

Broken by the noise.

From 17 syllables, a community movement was born. In the tree-lined neighborhood of million-dollar brownstones, dog-walkers and mothers pushing strollers could be seen wandering away from the lampposts, counting syllables on their fingers as they composed their own honku. Over the weeks, emboldened pedestrians began to chastise ill-mannered drivers. Neighbors clustered at corners and shared strategies. By the end of April, the honku-generated buzz brought five police officers to Clinton Street to hand out $125 tickets for noise violations. The local councilman deputized Naparstek as an official “traffic calmer.”

“It may be,” mused Naparstek, “the country’s only example where police and politicians responded to poetry.”

Honku and other issue-oriented haiku have migrated to the light poles of nearby neighborhoods and Naparstek has created a virtual lamppost, www.honku.org, attracting verse from Canada and Sweden. There was even one from Los Angeles bemoaning its lack of honking:

LA: no one honks

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Porsche guy on phone cuts me off

I give him stink eye.

Aware that there is a fine line between citizen activist and curmudgeon, the 31-year-old Web designer just can’t stay away from the street. To truly understand the honking, Naparstek spends his afternoons analyzing its origins--from the technical (the traffic lights are not synchronized) to the psychosocial.

And he has several theories about why drivers honk so much in New York, especially on the single-lane shortcut to the Brooklyn Bridge where he lives. Most people behind the wheel here are professional drivers--cabbies, limo drivers and truckers stuck all day in gridlock, he said. “They view their vehicle as their world, and everything else is just in the way of their world.” So, he says, they’re the quickest to hit the horn out of habit.

Others honk because they’re stuck behind the garbage truck blocking the whole street at rush hour. They honk because someone’s tying up traffic trying to parallel park. And they honk because people expect them to.

“Sometimes drivers can’t see the light and depend on the guy behind them to let them know when to go.” Naparstek raised an eyebrow. “You know you’re a New Yorker when you get mad at the person behind you for not honking when the light turns green.”

Why did his honku strike such a chord? “I think people realized that they weren’t the only ones being driven crazy,” Naparstek said. It was a way to communicate without being confrontational. And trying to boil sentiments down to 17 syllables made it a kind of neighborhood game.

Annie-B Parson, a choreographer who spent a recent weekend posting honku with her daughter, has her own theory. “It’s counterintuitive. It’s absurd. The people you’re actually addressing, the drivers in their cars, can’t even see it. But it’s emotional, and people respond to it.”

The intensity of the honking seems to have abated since the honku began appearing, especially when the police were doling out fines, but still the daily cacophony continues. So that drivers could get the message too, Naparstek said, he has thought about making “honkards": posters with the honku printed on tear-off strips so pedestrians could present them to offending drivers.

“But I think, actually, that’s pretty dangerous. Drivers get really aggressive when you approach their space.” He knows that from the time he stuck his head in the open window of a beeping vehicle and yelled at the driver, “Hoooooooooooooooonk!” He nearly didn’t get his head back. Perhaps the solution, he said, is one giant verse per lamppost, like the old Burma Shave roadside signs.

Not everybody loves the honku. The last few rounds of verse were scraped off the poles almost as fast as Naparstek and friends put them up. (He thinks it’s real estate agents, concerned that the otherwise bucolic neighborhood is getting a bad reputation.) And, this being New York, a few anti-honku haiku have appeared.

Your thoughts are petty

I think of children who are

Starving, dying, scared.

Naparstek, delighted that the opposition had adopted the form and the forum, replied:

We care about kids

Why don’t you write some starve-ku

We’re working on honks.

On nice days, Naparstek can be found sitting on the stoop in front of his brownstone, orchestrating traffic and practicing honk prevention.

“Move up,” he yelled to a green Toyota that left a full car length of space ahead of it--a definite honk incitement. It moved up.

“Sssssh.” He caught the eye of a limousine driver honking at the red light and put his fingers to his lips. The driver shrugged--but didn’t honk again.

“I see the whole complexity of the system from up here,” he said, waving his arm over the avenue.

But he won’t be there to see it much longer.

The poet of Clinton Street is moving to another neighborhood this summer. He bought a house on a road that is under construction. “That’s the one thing that makes me really nervous. I don’t know what the traffic is like.”


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