I jaywalk partly because I am from New York, where everybody jaywalks and nobody cares. But mostly I jaywalk for the same reason that I put my pants on before my shoes and sit on the toilet facing forward and not backward: Because it makes perfect sense, inconveniences no one else, and because behaving otherwise would be silly, inefficient and counterproductive.
I don’t think about my jaywalking all that often because I live in Washington, where the practice is generally tolerated, if not exactly ubiquitous. But after a recent trip to Berkeley, Calif., jaywalking is all I’ve been thinking about.
Berkeley is an extremely civil place. It is earnestly civil. In my hotel room was a new bar of soap, shaped like a doughnut, with a big hole in the middle. The packaging (which was “70% recycled” cardboard, using “soy-based ink”) explained that this doughnut design helped preserve the environment by eliminating the part of the bar that is customarily thrown away. This seemed all sweetly green to me until I gave the matter a few seconds’ thought: Supplying a new bar to every guest in a hotel (and replacing it daily) is about the most wasteful use of soap imaginable; almost ALL of it gets thrown away. The doughnut-hole soap was to waste control what taking the escalator instead of the elevator is to weight control. But let’s not quibble: The point is, they care.
They care out in the street, too. I sensed this in mid-jaywalk. It hit me slowly, the way you might sense — taking subtle clues from those around you — that your fly might be open.
At St. Charles elementary school in Bridgeport, Conn., my wife’s first-grade teacher was Sister Mary Nolasco, who was roughly 198 years old. Sister Nolasco did not tolerate misbehavior, particularly the infraction of Talking During Class. The redoubtable nun would point at the malefactor and tell the class: “GLARE at her, children. GLARE at her.” And thus would be brought to bear, full force, the indignant scowling scorn of a room full of self-righteous 6-year-olds.
That’s what happened to me, on a Berkeley street, in mid-jaywalk. I felt eyes on me and looked around, and everyone, on each side of the street — all of them waiting patiently at the red light with not a car in sight — everyone was glaring at me.
I kind of enjoyed it, if you want to know the truth. Kept doing it the two days of my visit, kept earning glares, until finally, a few blocks from my hotel, the truly ridiculous happened. A police officer called out. I ambled over.
“Gonna have to give you a citation, sir,” he said.
“Not crossing at the corner.”
This was true. This time, I had actually crossed with the light, but not at the light.
He had pulled out some sort of ticket-book contraption. He looked a little sympathetic, I thought, so I tried something.
I said: “You don’t have to give me a ticket. You have to look like you’re giving me a ticket.” And I nodded toward the people standing on the street, watching smugly. His eyes met mine, and they twinkled.
“Consider this a warning,” he said, elaborately handing me nothing at all, which I accepted meekly. And went on my way. Crossing at the corner, with the light, just this once.
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