Ageless Stranger

I’ve lived in Berkeley long enough–more than 30 years, more than half my life–that I’ve become familiar with a whole cast of characters who are actually total, or nearly total, strangers. Store clerks, panhandlers, fellow passengers on the train, commuters who stroll through the neighborhood. There have always been a few of these unknown ones who don’t fit into any of those predictable slots. Just people I’ve seen over and over during my walks. Most memorable is a man with whom I happened to ride to San Francisco one day in the casual carpool from North Berkeley BART. I had seen this guy before and never had any occasion to interact. But on this particular morning, we wound up in the same car with a man driving over the Bay Bridge into the city. Somehow, the driver’s occupation came up. He was a doctor at San Francisco General Hospital. That information prompted my fellow passenger to disclose that he was on the way to see a doctor. He was being examined for prostate trouble, which he proceeded to describe in generous detail. Quite a performance, and for years afterward, whenever I chanced to pass this guy on the street, I’d ask, “How’s your prostate?” Coming from a complete stranger, the query always got a startled look.

There’s another guy I’ve been seeing on the street for decades. The reason I first noticed him was his hair: blond, waist length, and very lank and straight. He walks with an almost unnaturally erect posture and always seems to have a serious expression and to keep his eyes straight ahead. He walks a lot, I think, and walks a little faster than I do. I’ve encountered him dozens of times in different neighborhoods and even up in the hills. We’ve lived in our neighborhood since the late ’80s, which is probably when I started seeing this guy. I know I’ve aged in those years. He hasn’t aged much. We’ve never spoken in all those times we’ve passed each other, and I’ve wondered who this severe-looking hard-walking stranger is.

A few months ago, Kate and I were out on a Saturday morning walking The Dog. We made one of our regular turns, and up ahead I saw the long-haired stranger. He was wearing a white bathrobe and was picking up something from his lawn; I think he was dealing with a leaky sprinkler or something. We said something as we passed–“Good morning,” I guess–and he responded with a friendly “good morning” of his own. That’s all that happened. But it was enough to make me feel like I had some connection to this stranger after all these years. And for all I know, he (and how many others?) have been wondering about me, too.

Guest Observation: E.B. White

From a collection we have, “E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker, 1927-1976”:

Crossing the Street

July 16. 1932

Possibly you have noticed this about New Yorkers: instinctively, crossing a one-way street, they glance in the proper direction to detect approaching cars. They always know, without thinking, which way the traffic flows. They glance in the right direction as naturally as a deer sniffs upwind. Yet after that one glance in the direction from which the cars are coming, they always, just before stepping out into the street, also cast one small, quick, furtive look in the opposite direction–from which no cars could possibly come. That tiny glance (which we have noticed over and over again) is the last sacrifice on the altar of human fallibility; it is an indication that people can never quite trust the self-inflicted cosmos, and that they dimly suspect that some day, in the maze of well-regulated vehicles and strong, straight buildings, something will go completely crazy–something big and red and awful will come tearing through town going the wrong way on the one-ways, mowing down all the faithful and the meek. Even if it’s only a fire engine.

Pedestrian Matters

7th Avenue and W. 34th Street

Early last week, we were in New York. I spent most of one hot afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History, on the Upper West Side, and afterward decided to walk down to Penn Station — nearly three miles on the wandering out-of-towner’s course I took — to meet Kate, who was coming in on a commuter train from New Jersey.

Always striking about New York: the number of people on the street, at all hours; and of course, the effect is magnified at the end of the work day as you go from the placid precincts of Central Park West toward Midtown. A commuter crowd mobbed the area around 7th Avenue and West 34th Street, a block up from the station, all going home to the suburbs.

Standing at that corner (above), I was conscious of something I’d been seeing all along my walk: The New York pedestrian’s habit of stepping off the curb when waiting for the lights to change, crowding right up to the traffic lane in some cases getting ready to hustle across against the light if there was an opening in traffic — unlikely on 7th Avenue, not so unusual on less-busy side streets. For a visitor, the New York walking style seems aggressive, disorderly and even dangerous. But it is fast: The only places I got stopped along the way were major intersections. The key is keeping your eyes open and remembering that the drivers you’re looking at are aggressive, too, and that the laws of physics are against you in a collision, even if you think you have the right of way.

It’s a fundamentally different way of street thinking from the prevalent attitude in the Bay Area. In California, state law gives pedestrians virtually universal right of way (with the obvious exceptions: against red lights, for instance). The law aims to make it safer for pedestrians to cross the street, but its effect actually goes well beyond that: It has created a sense of righteous entitlement among pedestrians, who by their behavior apparently believe that all considerations — courtesy, common sense, drivers’ reaction times, night-time visibility, the aforementioned laws of physics — have been suspended by statute.

Yeah, a less car-centric world would be a much better place in many ways. And we ought to make the streets safe for everyone who uses them. But planting the idea in people’s heads that they can step off the curb into the path of a speeding car — and that the car will stop, damn it — promotes naivete and selfishness more than safety.

Some suggestive stats: According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers, in eight of the 10 years between 1995 and 2004, the most recent statistical year available, New York state had a lower pedestrian fatality rate than California. On the other hand, New York appears to have a much higher percentage of pedestrians killed at intersections — consistently on the order of 40 to 50 percent of the state total compared to California’s 25 percent or so. For the past several reported years, “improper crossing of roadway or intersection” is the top listed factor in pedestrian fatalities in New York; in California, that factor is in a dead heat for No. 1 with “failure to yield right of way” (which I take to mean pedestrians’ failure to yield).

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