When a neighbor offers me a ride down the West Side, I don’t need to be asked twice. On this particular fine morning, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has taken to the radio, blathering on from his portable pulpit about lead-foots. Speeders.
New Yorkers cannot be permitted to career about the city over the speed limit unless, of course, they’re in a motorcade or at least with a police escort. This day’s stern lecture should intimidate New Yorkers about as much as the mayoral sermon on the evils of jaywalking.
There is a war raging in the streets, Mr. Mayor, in case you haven’t noticed. Most of us notice every day. It is being fought between pedestrians and motorists, and not just psychopathic cab and bus drivers (forgive the redundancy). This is passive-aggressive conflict, where folks with feet to ground and pedal to metal duel by simply ignoring each other, proceeding as if each is the permanent custodian of the right of way.
Motorists roar down avenues and across streets as if every traffic light, regardless of hue, is really a checkered flag. Cars approach crowded intersections and speed up when the light turns yellow. They seem to see this as bowling. Or a New York version of population control. There certainly is driver rage at work here. But we, forever on our feet, have pushed motorists to their collective limit of endurance.
Not long ago, I attempted to walk in front of an auto discharging a passenger from the front seat. My big mistake. As the guy slammed the door, the car lurched forward and cut me off, almost crushing my toes. It then screeched to a halt at a red light, maybe 20 yards down the street.
Excuse me? This was nothing more than a vehicular power grab, my split second of living dangerously.
Nevertheless, pedestrians-the home team, as far as I am concerned-have honestly earned the enmity of drivers. We approach each intersection and cross every street, especially those with a number rather than a name attached to them, without even pretending to notice, let alone care, which color the electronic traffic cop is sporting at the moment. And we are so ostentatious about it, almost daring drivers to cross swords at the crosswalk.
I was on 75th Street at Broadway not long ago and watched a woman opening her wallet and counting out bills for no apparent reason.
Of course, she was standing in the middle of 75th Street, ignoring drivers instantly going crazy. It was as if she was counting her change from Fairway a few doors down, though I’ve actually never been handed change there, myself.
This is a battle to the death for control in a city where that particular aspiration is only an echo of past citizen glory, sort of like the citizen state, a system based on the quaint promise of egalitarianism and empowerment. That, of course, is precisely what is up for grabs in the streets of New York today.
My fellow pedestrians and I fired the first salvo, I believe, and now the whole movement has gotten out of hand. The foot soldiers are mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore. We pour into the streets and across the avenues, bolstered by our numbers and the self-righteousness of our rectitude. We walk the walk. We are correct, and, besides, they started it. It’s those awful, pushy people in the horseless carriages.
So we swarm across Lexington Avenue from Bloomingdale's. We overtake everything in our way on Fifth Avenue in midtown. Broadway is a motorist’s nightmare up and down the city. The streets of New York look as if the Mayor ought to call the exterminator and get rid of the street pests once and for all.
Our sheep’s clothing is complete. We step off the curb with innocent vengeance. The blackguards among us are hard to spot at a distance.
The most dangerous street perpetrators are the new mothers pushing their baby carriages ahead of them, wielding them like shields. They just lead with the kids, arms outstretched as if pushing a holy object. Apparently, buses bounce off babies. Mothers push through the vehicles as if parting the Red Sea. These women must think they are backlit, glowing with the aura of a Mannerist painting of the Deity.
Then there are the old folks. When they’re not poking you with umbrellas or knifing you to get on the bus first, they are padding across busy streets, defying motorists to run them down. Just try it.
And we wonder why drivers go postal.
The glare of the traffic light is blinding us. That colorful instrument of social order is now a symbol of oppression. Pedestrians act, and drivers react. The Mayor knows that autos are operated mostly by out-of-towners, and they don’t have the privilege of voting for him. So, blame the lead-foots.
Sociologist Louis Wirth, in an essay written in 1938, cited the traffic light along with the clock as symbols of the social order in urban societies. “If we threw away our watches and weaved through intersections at will, chaos would prevail,” he wrote. Didn’t he make The Day of the Locust ?
Chaos has prevailed, of course, and one person’s chicken is another’s egg. I say it is a pedestrian who is warming that rotten egg, and it is stinking up the city.
We all know that some bus drivers belong in Bellevue Hospital and some cabbies are crazy. It’s that little old lady from Pasadena or Paramus or Port Chester whom that Mayor wants to pin the rap on.
In New York’s caste system, those of us on foot cling to the lowest rung of the social ladder. We know that.
Pedestrians are down there with what we try not to step in on the sidewalks each day. Folks like me simply exist at the end of leashes held by landlords, utilities, banks and, of course, the phone companies.
Our voices are small, though the traffic problems we create are big. Forgive us, if you will.
We are simply trying to rise above our pedestrian lives.