I was five and my family was visiting New York City
, gaping at the hustle and blown away by the bustle. Canadian to the core, we were the docile, non-critical type to wait for a light at an intersection
to turn green
even if there were no car in sight in any direction, even in sub-zero temperatures, even if the light was broken. Compounding that were tales of rabid NYC cabbie
s jumping curbs, unexpectedly changing lanes or turning without signalling and other such manoevres more worthy of Ironman's Offroad
than the urbane streets of civil society.
... so we were shocked at the crosswalk - dozens of people huddled impatiently at the corners, charging onwards towards a red light. Was this, like aberrant hypersocial, hypersexual and homosexual rats, a manifestation of mass hysteria fuelled by unnatural population density? Were they, lemming-like, instinctively driven to their dooms en masse? Before we did something rash like scream or faint, the light turned green and the crowds hurried on, unmolested. On shaky knees, we proceeded across the street ourselves.
Again and again this spectacle presented itself for our unbelieving eyes - that of gangs of unruly pedestrians heedlessly tramping into the dangerous streets (I was at the Hold Hands with a Grown-Up When Crossing the Street stage) and the traffic signals changing to their favour at the last minute possible before chaos and carnage resulted.
Eventually we clued in, due to the consistancy and systematic nature of this phenomenon, that the masses that flowed into the streets immediately prior to the light's change weren't doing it because they were suicidal, nor because they knew that there was safety in numbers (sure a car might mow through seven or eight of us but after that it'll be slow enough, axels gummed up in ichor and sinews, that we would probably survive a collision), but rather that they could to a man sense with some hitherto unknown third eye a palpable moment of calm and safety immediately preceeding the light change.
Having been in the city only a matter of hours, our sixth chakras remained unaligned and though we didn't understand this crosswalk telepathy, through observation we had evidence that the supernaturally-informed movements of the natives were safe enough for a family to follow.
The day before we left, we finally clued in as to the medium chanelling these messages of tranquil asphalt oases: through years of laid-back Canadian traffic lights, we had learned to observe the signal facing us to learn when it was safe for us to proceed. The N'Yarkers instead, heads tilted jauntily, would observe the traffic signals directing the contrary traffic flow: they would not move when they were informed that to move in their direction was safe, but when the perpendicular flow was informed that it was illegal to proceed. There is a breath between the red of one direction and the green of another where, for an instant, both directions are red.
But they say that the pace of life is accelerated in New York, and those breaths really add up over time. So you clench your fists, grit your teeth, and step over the curb - taking a leap of faith that the drivers of the two-ton killing machines are paying as close scrutiny to their traffic signals as you are.
I suppose you appreciate those breaths more if every one could be your last.