Foot Traffic

Imagine this! You’re walking North on Wilcox heading to dinner at the Castle Cafe, or maybe breakfast at B&B. About half way down the block a new business is setting up shop. They have boxes and equipment outside up against the front of their store. It’s mostly moved out of the way, but there’s a lot there so it’s kind of crowded. Because the sidewalk is not very wide and there are parking meters at the curb, the path to get by has become just wide enough for one person. The pedestrian traffic is not all that heavy, but there are a few people on the walkway.

As you approach the narrowing of the sidewalk you move to your left to pass the store front and avoid running into their stuff, you suddenly sense a presence off your left shoulder and before you can think, someone has cut in front of you and is quickly making his way through the narrowed walkway. You have to slow your pace to avoid now running into him lest you veer and crash into the boxes strewn about.

How about this? You’re waiting on a street corner for the light to change. Just as it changes you drop the book you were holding in your hand. The crowd around you begins to move as you stoop to pick it up but the person behind you has to wait briefly before he can proceed across the street.

“Come on, buddy, move it,” he says behind you as you stand again. Stepping out into the street, you notice the man behind you suddenly pick up the pace and jostle you to get by. He passes and waves just a single finger at you. Hopefully, in this instance, although the urge to respond might be high, you hold your tongue and your temper and continue one your way.

One more. Again walking down the street, this time there is light foot traffic and you are moving along nicely with them. A guy turns in front of you so you have to slow a little quickly to let him pass. From behind you you hear a “whoa!” as the person who was following you too close pulls up short and has to stop himself from knocking you down.

Next thing you know, he has sped around you but instead of continuing on he stops dead in his tracks and you crash into him.

I would think any of these events, especially on a busy city street, would lead to additional physical contact or at least the exchange of harsh words. I don’t think anone reading this could imagine actually doing that.

So what gives? People do these very same things in cars…every day. Something that might significantly increase the chance of getting the living snot beat outta someone on the street, is practiced every day as if the cloak of a car is enough to make you anonymous.

They give you angry looks, flip you the bird, zoom around you and slam on the breaks and whatever else they can do to let you know they are the “king of the road”, you are in “their house” and you’d better get out of the way, because what they have to do and where they are going is far more important than anything you might be up to.

Just after college, I lived in Annandale, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. One weekend evening, on the way to Georgetown, a friend and I were driving on I-325 through Alexandria. Already amped up at the prospects for the evening, we “got into it” with some fool (or at least at the time, we thought him the fool) who eventually did end up zooming in front of us and slamming on the breaks.

Being an inexperienced and overzealous 23-year-old behind the wheel, I hit the breaks a little too hard and in the middle of a 6-lane highway did a complete 180, complete with smoking rubber and squealing tires.

When it was over a few seconds later, I was facing a phalanx of oncoming headlights, the acrid smell of burnt rubber was in my nose and all I could says was “far out.” As nonchalantly as you might expect an inexperienced 23-year-old hopped up on testosterone might say it. These days, with the wisdom of time, I ask myself, who was the fool.

At the time, it was “cool”. We had a great night and I think my roommate even met a beautiful red-haired flight attendant. But it could have turned out very differently. I could be dead and you wouldn’t be reading this.

I don’t do that any more. I and my wife like it that way. So, when the guy in the trailer won’t let me merge and then has the nerve to point his fat finger at me like a gun and “pull the trigger”, I just let him go by. He has to live with himself, not me. When the silly lady speeding up the road weaving in and out of traffic appears in my rear view, I make room. She’s going to screw up one day and end up seeing how quickly two tons of steel can come apart at 70 miles an hour. But I’m not going to be the one she takes with her. And yesterday, when I watch a guy in a pickup swerves from the hammer lane, across two lanes of traffic, to the far right lane and then back just missing my front bumper (I was in the center lane), only to waggle that single fingered hello with vigor at the horse trailer that was impeding his progress, I just shake my head and give a sad smile.

I guess in a way, we all try to hammer out our own space in the world. We try to feel like we have ownership of something. And so we try to buy the bigger house, plant the greener expanse of lawn, own the biggest car or truck and take ownership of the hundred or so feet of road around us. But if we’re all doing that, it leaves no room for anyone so I will never be sure of the logic in it. I just know it grows tiresome and uses more energy than I want to give to such trivial and unproductive endeavors.

There seems to be a lot of negative emotion in the world these days. Some days it feels like it’s poisoning the air and choking out reason. There is animosity and fear. Many people are fighting over power, oil, land, territory, money or whatever. In some cases it has consumed them. Even if they have already lost, they won’t give up until there is “victory” as if that will make any real difference.

All human emotion is there for a reason. We are built the way we’re built and there’s not all that much we can do about it. But as we coexist with the varied and diverse other humans that walk the planet, those emotions that bring us together are always the ones that take the most work to build. Compassion, respect, honesty and loving kindness are luckily not in short supply (they never really are), but through the storms in the news, they are sometimes hard to find.

So the next time you’re trying to hammer out more space for yourself, see if you can stop and ask yourself what you’re doing it for. Is the reason really that important? Wouldn’t it be better to just let him merge in front of you, take a moment to hold the door for someone at the post office, let the young, uniquely-pierced teen laden with items go ahead of you in the grocery line?

It may be human nature to try to gather to yourself all you can. A survival mechanism that kicks in when things get a little wonky in our world. Whether it’s the intangibles of power or respect, or the solid physical presence of material items or money, it sometimes feels that the more we have, the more we can cloak and protect ourselves from the fear that makes us feel so out of control.

In the end, we’re all part of the same thing. As Carl Sagen once said, ” that’s here, that’s home, that’s us”. I firmly believe It is less important to be a part of a collection of things as it is to be a part of humanity. Besides, you really don’t own anything, anyway. You’re just borrowing it while you here.