Thursday, March 19, 2009

Where Pedestrians Rule

In 1950, Walt Disney produced a cartoon called Motor Mania starring the cartoon character Goofy. The cartoon is a take-off on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which Goofy plays Mr. Walker, a gentle and mannerly pedestrian, who, as soon as he gets in the driver's seat of his car, morphs into the seething, destructive, monstrous Mr. Wheeler.

While I found this caricature to be largely true when I lived in L.A., land of the freeway, the exact opposite occurs in Manhattan, where pedestrians rule the streets, and they do not rule benevolently. Let there be a one car-length gap in crosstown traffic flow, and pedestrians teem across the street against the light, forcing the next driver across to choose between waiting in the intersection or hitting a crowd of people crossing against the light. When a car is caught in a crosswalk, pedestrians swarm around it like ants on a cupcake, crossing both in front and in back of the vehicle. I am always expecting to see someone leap over its hood or trunk to save a step or two.

The evil pedestrian persona is not limited to people who actually live in Manhattan; the transformation occurs to every pedestrian who sets foot on the island. For example, the other day, my bus was coming north on Madison Avenue approaching 54th Street when we saw a car stuck in the intersection. "What do you bet he's from New Jersey?", the bus driver said and, sure enough, as we passed and looked at the license plate, indeed he was. A whole busful of people, who had all started the morning in New Jersey themselves and had passed into Manhattan no more than ten minutes earlier, sat and laughed at the hapless chump from the sticks. There ought to be a law. Actually, there is a law, but no one pays it any mind.

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