Sunday, November 20, 2011

Road Sage

       I remember it like it was yesterday. I was exiting Brooks Drugs on a not-so-quaint stretch of Great Barrington in the Berkshire Mountains. I think Brooks Drugs is now called the less unseemly Brooks Pharmacy. Jaunts to Brooks were frequent in GB because, well, it was in the middle of the mountains and where else was someone supposed to get toothpaste? I am guessing locals of the tiny town stocked up on necessities at a Costco in Springfield, but Brooks was a savior for the weekenders who forgot club soda at their co-ops on the Upper West Side. GB was a town full of decades-old auto repair shops and years-old sushi bars and artisan pottery shops. But only one place to get an Ativan prescription refilled.
       Anyway, the memory is as clear as a mountain day--because, of course, the incident occurred on a mountain in the day. I was leaving Brooks Drugs, with white, non-recyclable plastic bags breaking under the weight of gum, Chapstick, and Diet Coke, and I stepped into the cross walk. The stretch of road was not particularly busy, so there wasn't any great peril to stepping into it in a slightly distracted haze. But this time, something happened that I will never forget: A car ambling up Main Street stopped. Not a jam-on-your-brakes-tires-screeching kind of stop. A refined, thoughtful stop.
        I stood there, one foot into the cross walk, not sure what was going on. There was no traffic light, no stop sign. No family of ducklings waddling. The car continued to calmly idle. What was going on? Was I magic? Never before had I experienced such an unexpected causal relationship. I was well into adulthood at that point and had crossed many a street in my lifetime. I had never before had a car stop for me without swear words being hurled.
         Little did I know at the time, but apparently there is a rule--actually, a full-fledged law!--that mandates drivers stop for pedestrians who are crossing in a crosswalk. In fact, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts--one of the original 13 states and the originator of the feast of Thanksgiving--this act of restraint is stipulated in Title XIV, Chapter 89, Section 11, of the General Laws of the land. And whoever violates any provision of this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than $200. And keep in mind that this was many years ago, when the U.S. Dollar was worth more than the Canadian dollar. And there was no Euro to help tank the international markets. Would I have been awarded $200 if the driver had not stopped?
          I have been both a dedicated pedestrian and driver in my years. I have to say that although it may be safer to be a driver it is definitely cheaper to be a walker. There are so many infractions to driving, more than any sane person could ever be expected to master. I have gotten dinged for all the nit-picky rules that I presumably memorized when I took my driving test back in the 1980s. Parking more than 18 inches from a curb cost me about $45 (1998). I tried to fight that one by claiming I use the metric system, but I was probably 20 years too late for that argument to fly. Speeding in a "construction zone," even if the only thing constructed was the sign designating it a "construction zone," several hundred dollars (2006), and the main reason I am avoiding Nevada until 2013. Talking on a cell phone that is not at my ear (2010), a $25 ticket that turns into $242 with no explanation. And $500 for some infraction that needed to be explained to my twice (2010) and I swear isn't even a real law. Many of us who enhanced CV by studying for and passing the DMV examination pursue higher education through one of the many prestigious Traffic Schools that populate our fair Internet.
          Walking, which is a skill I mastered more than 15 years prior to driving, appears to be less regulated. I like to think of walking as a more Libertarian pursuit than driving. Having spent many of my formative years ambulatory in cities whose streets were designed well before the advent of the automobile, I grew up without an understanding of the actual purpose of crosswalks and flashing white figures and sidewalks. One crosses when one needs to cross. If Starbucks is directly across the street, an Easterner just intrinsically knows how to dodge Saab hatchbacks to get to a latte quickly, without being flattened by a ton of Swedish steel. When I moved to Los Angeles and saw tourists patiently standing on street corners before crossing, I assumed they were waiting for a bus. When in Tokyo I saw locals stop abruptly as a light changed, I worried they were having a seizure. Now that I have children, I make a show of loudly proclaiming how we "always wait for the white walking man," even if there are no cars for miles around. Of course, this is only if there are other pedestrians around.
          So, as a highly educated driver, and a pedestrian of the school-of-hard-knocks variety, I have inadvertently learned pedestrian laws from my experience as a driver. One is not supposed to drive over a cross-walk until the walker is on the other side of the street. Who knew? I grew up playing Frogger with cars, and assumed dodging rolling vehicles was half the fun of getting from Point A to Point B. It hadn't occurred to me until I was ticketed for this very driving infraction (2009) that the driver/walker relationship was not meant to be an adversarial one.  Really, what is the point of having a piercing horn front and center on the steering wheel if not to encourage meandering crossers to light a fire under the asses? Weren't electric windows invented to make it easier for a driver to curse out the window at a jogger with headphones?
           In California, however, the government has the last laugh on pedestrians, Liberterians and, especially, Libertarian pedestrians. Like the "off sides" rule in soccer, people have explained "Jaywalking" to me countless times. I still don't understand how it is done, what the problem is with it, and what it has to do with either the letter "J" or the Blue Jay bird. But that didn't stop a member of my immediate family from coming home with a $100-plus ticket for this alleged infraction. Drivers are fined $200 for not letting a pedestrian cross, and a walker is fined $100 to cross a street? I think it is time for me to use a parasail to get around town.



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