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Battle Flag of the Pedestrians

Uh-oh. All nine available flags are on one side of the street, and here comes a man in a baseball cap wanting to cross on the other side. He gets stuck in the middle of the street, traffic zooming around him. He hunches, sees an opening, breaks into a trot, nearly gets mowed down by an 18-wheeler OVERSIZE LOAD hellbent for downtown.

On the way back, William McCray, 61, takes a flag.

Making their way across Connecticut Avenue, pedestrians use a bright orange flag to alert motorists. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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Different flag-bearers have different styles. McCray is a glowerer. He menaces with his flag, and a 1-800-GOT-JUNK truck squeals to a stop.

There are the prancers, who high-step it across the avenue, imaginary majorette boots on their feet. There are the dancers, like Cathy Cannizzo, 14, of Columbia, who takes classes at the Washington School of Ballet six times a week and comes to the neighborhood to get dinner. Shoulders back and down, rib cage lifted, feet slightly out, she carries it as if onstage. "Sometimes, I like to wave it a little," she says.

There are runners, who hardly stop as they use the rack and the flag. There are little kids, on their way to Ben & Jerry's, holding onto their moms with one hand and the flag with the other, waving it like it's the Fourth of July.

Here comes Susanne Rivera, 52, with her two teenage daughters, mother and younger sister, Sally Lewis, 48. Rivera just moved to Chevy Chase from Germantown to cut her commute, and she cherishes being in a walkable neighborhood.

Lewis is a prancer, and she playfully crosses the flag with the one her niece is carrying.

"We did flags in high school," she says.

"I didn't do flags in high school!" says Rivera.

"You did, too," says Lewis.

"No, middle school," says Rivera.

"Well, I was in flags in high school," says Lewis.

If you are a besieged pedestrian, tired of feeling trapped by the revving vehicular world, the flags are transformative. You are the matador, and that idiot behind the wheel is a bull to be slain! You are a grumpy old lady, liberated by age to pretend to rap your cane against a windshield!

This is precisely what concerns flag skeptics in a city where, Tangherlini says, nine pedestrians were killed last year. Some pedestrians feel a false sense of security, or believe the painted lines of a crosswalk are a magic shield. "They are empowering, but you also have to use common sense," says Nolan. She doesn't like to hear about people prancing, really. Proper technique requires the walker to hold the flag directly in front, arm at a stiff right angle to the body. "Wait for a break in traffic," she instructs. "Step in. Make eye contact with the driver. If they don't start slowing down, you need to back up. It's not worth getting killed to make a point."

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