Pedestrian Perils

February 5th, 2009 by Gid

I grew up with the usual pets, a dog, several cats, a fish tank, and the occasional hamster and gerbil. Pets can be a wonderful tool for parents in teaching responsibility while caring for something cute and fuzzy… well, except for the fish, but what they lack in cuddlability, they can make up for in fascination. Of course, they invariably provide other lessons that a parent might not originally intend to teach at the outset. There are unexpected questions like, “Why is Rags eating cat poop?” The child gets a rather odd lesson in nutrition. “Why is my gerbil lopsided?” Now the child gets to learn about tumors. “What are those two cats doing?” leads to a discussion about the birds and bees – unless you’re terrified, consumed by guilt, religiously opposed to sharing potentially beneficial information, and/or mentally deficient, in which case you teach shame and evasion… but that’s a topic for another day.

Manhattan is an interesting place. There are hundreds of things to do 24/7, and nearly two million people running around trying to do them. Born and raised in suburbia, this environment came with its own set of challenges for me. When I first visited a neighborhood sometimes referred to as the Upper Worst Side, I encountered many of those two million people striding purposefully up and down Broadway intent upon reaching their destination before anyone else could. They would scrupulously avoid making eye contact with anyone else; to do so enabled them to play a game of pedestrian “chicken,” and force others to either move out of their way, or risk getting crashed into. Not being able to watch out for more than two or three people at once, I soon found myself being bumped around like a pinball, as one person after another made good on their threat. The rules of the game are complex, but it seems that if one mutters a cursory “’Scuse me” after trying to run you down, that makes up for any perceived lack of civility.

Eventually I stopped behind a bus stop enclosure out of self defense. This also turned out to be a mistake, as someone walked right up to me, and waited for me to step aside out of their way. We stood there for about a full minute before he gave up and moved on after pronouncing a less than complementary judgment on my character. For a while, I tried walking in the streets like many people in midtown at rush hour. This worked well enough, until I realized that many drivers had the same mindset as the pedestrians. Another option is to walk an inch away from the buildings; most people would allow me through, but doors did cause problems. Adages exist for a reason, so I threw caution (and courtesy) to the wind, made like a Roman and adopted the regional customs. I strolled own the right-hand side of the sidewalk, carefully kept my eyes on the storefronts, the sky, the sidewalk, anywhere but directly ahead. There was no more pinball. There was, however, an even more insidious threat on the streets.

Anyone who has flown recently will tell you that airlines will usually call certain passengers for preboarding, including those with small children. When Chesley Sullenberger landed his plane in the Hudson River, women and children were ushered out before anyone else. “Women and children first” is the rule of thumb on sinking ships, and many inhabitants of the UWS have taken this to heart when walking down the street. People, forewarned is forearmed: Beware of strollers! I’ve been around the proverbial block a few thousand times, so there’s very little that shocks me anymore. Nevertheless, the first time I saw a woman barging her way down the street using her stroller (occupied) as a battering ram to clear her path, I was stunned speechless.

One day, I saw one of those strollers approaching me at a rather fast pace. The woman behind it was running over feet and shoving her way through the crowd in such a way that her child will surely grow up fearless of any amusement park ride devised by the most cunning and sadistic engineer. Or worse, the child will grow up to be as neurotic as its mother. I moved over to get as close to the building as I could, and she swerved as well – right toward me, while watching me the entire time to see what I’d do. I stopped. Before she could hit me, I put up my hand, arm straight out in the international symbol for STOP! She did, and forced out an aggrieved sigh and a haughty “Excuse me!” as if she hadn’t just been aiming for me. I looked at her and said, “You’re kidding, right?” She let out a contemptuous “Oh!” and stormed off.

After thinking this over for a time, I reminded myself that whatever else we may be, no matter how highly developed or highly ranked in the food chain, human beings are still animals, possessed of the same instincts as many other animals are. If too many of them are packed into a small space, aggression – whether overt or passive – is bound to result. Throughout history, after all, most wars have been fought over space. I wonder what might happen if this woman eventually brings a pet home for her child. Eventually, when the child asks, “What happened to the other two hamster babies?” or “What happened to the other half of that fish?” I like to imagine that a very enlightening discussion about territoriality or perceived threat could follow.


2 Responses to “Pedestrian Perils”

  1. Mardhana Says:

    Love it!

  2. Aliza Says:

    Thank you for a great blog, I will be sure to bookmark your site and check back later :)

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