Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ways to Make a Person Snap #47: Walking in Manhattan

Today we're going to talk about walking in Manhattan. Those of suburb or smaller city, jogging or walking their dogs blithely along the footpaths while waving to neighbors playing with their grandkids on the front porch will probably say, what's to talk about?

What indeed.

You’re out taking a walk. Just minding your own business. Normal day. What side of the sidewalk do you walk on?

In Australia the answer to that question would be, the left. Walking, like driving, uses the opposite side in Australia. So, too, escalators – the up escalator is always on the left hand side.

But here in the States, I am going to guess that you answered, the right. I walk on the right hand side. Correct.

But in Manhattan, these social rules are more children's stories. "Once upon a time, when the streets weren't crowded and the world was made of marshmellows, people used to have to walk on the right hand side of the sidewalk." People walk wherever they want to walk – left side, right side, or diagonal. Wherever the crowd's shape and direction moves them, whatever gets them there faster. And the fact that others might be on a collision course with them means pretty much nothing. You are always playing a game of chicken, really. Who will turn aside first?? Even when the sidewalk is totally empty, you will sometimes find people walking right at you, or even cutting across the empty sidewalk toward you, rather than adjusting their direction just slightly. It's like when you're in an empty church and someone sits down right next to you. Hello, I must be going.

You might think, based on experience, that other walkers somehow don’t see you.

And you would be correct.

Ok, fine. Sometimes they see you. But rarely. You get run down enough by other people walking right at you, forcing you to move, at some point you buy in, square your shoulders, start walking straight ahead like your neck doesn't swivel and dare someone to get in your way.

But of course, someone always will. And eventually you have a bruise and a shorter temper to show for it. And that's why this isn't the best strategy.

To really succeed at walking unmolested in New York, you have to behave in a manner that does not fit the norm. For example – denizens of New York will tell you what they hate more than anything is people who walk slowly, tourists who insist on looking around, or stopping.

And -- my two cents -- I can’t say I’m a fan of the stopping. Sidewalks in New York City are not parks, scenic rest stops or libraries. They're very much mini-streets, avenues that people take on foot to get from one place to another. Stopping creates pockets of congestion in the flow of their traffic. We don’t like it on the roads, and we don’t like it on the sidewalks, either. Really, our sidewalks need a curb where you can pull over. Our sidewalks need rest areas.

Even so, the occasional gentle stop, or meandering pace, can really work for you. Because that slower pace doesn't fit the way the game is played. You've disrupted things. It forces everyone to adjust -- and cross your fingers, that means they'll more likely walk around you or stop.

Another ploy which I like to use is to read as I walk. Less so than you might think, and this is not always effective, especially when facing people who are texting or talking on the phone, as they're pretty much playing the same I am not paying attention to the world around me card, though with a bigger chip on the shoulder and the whole cellphone volume issue, which doesn't necessarily affect bystanders' movements as much as their tempers, but still.

When you walk as you read, people will immediately back off to the left and the right. It’s like the parting of the Red Sea, and you don’t even have to be reading the Bible while you do it. (Although I recommend the Bible. Looking for something short? Try Ruth. Great story.) Of course, it’s not always easy to navigate your own way reading while you walk; yes, I have missed my turn and also my train. I've even ended up going the wrong way on the subway on occasion. But who cares -- at least you get a little breathing room while you travel.

Sometimes I think about starting to jump around, hooting and waving my hands. I don't know, but I think that could work, too. Just a hunch.

My one other way of thinking outside the box: don't use the sidewalks at all. Walk in the streets. In general there are FAR fewer people (though, yes, the occasional cyclist who is probably going the wrong way down the street), meaning you can go at your own pace, and you will not be jostled to the point that you think you are going to flip out and start flailing about randomly while howling at the top of your lungs, LEAVE ME ALONE!

Not that I’ve ever thought of that myself.


It would definitely get people to back off, though, wouldn't it?

Tomorrow's follow-up: Umbrellas & Intersections!


Anonymous said...

this is cool Jim
good way for me to shake off the days frustrations. love nellie

Ann said...

LOL! From the opening line I was thinking "the street, he's a smart guy, why doesn't he just use the street".

Walking in midtown is one of the few things I do not miss about Manhattan.

I have no idea how I ended up on your blog but I'm glad I did, you are very funny.

Anonymous said...

Of course having said I didn't know, I had to find out how I arrived here. Apparently I stumbled on your blog doing a genealogy search on my great-grandfather, who has the same name as someone on one of your other posts. Makes me realize that there are probably millions of interesting blogs that never make it on to my RSS feed.


Anonymous said...

You never followed up on umbrellas and intersections. I've totally given up on using an umbrella in Manhattan -- it's a pedestrian nightmare.


Ken said...

Jim McDermott never carries an umbrella. He actually has generated his own microclimate where it's always sunny with a slight breeze out of the southwest.

Vernon Malcolm said...

Inspect away Congestion! The city should toughen inspections for medical, psychiatric and vehicle reasons to cut down the number of congestion. This way, we will also get the voters against congestion pricing, who live in Bayside and Staten Island, to move away. Free health care means psychiatric care for all those angry talk radio white males!