Soft tissue, fluid, bone.
That was what I found myself thinking the other day, on a downtown street corner where Connecticut Avenue is intersected by two streams of westbound traffic. When the light turns red for the Rhode Island Avenue lanes, pedestrians tend to walk halfway across the street and stop while the M Street cars pass by. On this day about six people were standing there. In my mind flashed an appalling image. These were human sixpins.
They were sort of bunching up there, in the middle of the road, some waiting for the light, some itching for an opportunity to sprint to safety; others were joining them from behind, increasing the forward tendency of the group, stacking behind them, imperceptibly inching them ahead against their inclination. People were stepping tentatively forward, then thinking the better of it and stepping back. They were teetering on the balls of their feet. Necks were craning.
The scene offended me.
It is not that they were jaywalking. It is that their jaywalking was ugly.
Jaywalking is a fine art. It should not be practiced amateurishly, as though it were finger painting.
It must be effortless yet efficient; it must conserve motion but do so with fluidity. It must be planned, but allow for spontaneity. It must be precise but flexible. Loose but not arbitrary.
It is dance. A Delicate Balance
Let us make one thing clear from the start. The jaywalker of popular conception -- the insolent teenager swaggering across the street, blocking traffic and tempting the anger of the drivers almost beyond their control -- deserves all the condemnation he gets. He's as much a nuisance and a trespasser as someone who might take a stroll across the Kennedy Center stage while an opera is underway. Anyone can extort a crossing with the implied threat of a lawsuit. That's not art; that's misdemeanor.
Let us also acknowledge that jaywalking is not solely art. It is also science; it embodies geometry, trigonometry and vector analysis. And just as the scientist must observe his subject without altering it, so too must the jaywalker negotiate traffic without disrupting it. As with the nexus of art and science, jaywalking has its spiritual side. One must accept a Greater Power, the ebb and flow of vehicles. The fool ignores it; the coward fears it; the skilled jaywalker respects it and thus acquires some of its might.
The beauty that a jaywalker creates, perhaps like that of any artist, emerges out of the conflict between security and freedom. It springs up in the demilitarized zone between his two warring sentiments: his antipathy toward the lack of imagination that goes with too cautious a respect for law, and his guilt over that antipathy. His independence smacks of anarchy, but he acknowledges society's due by keeping his own punishment -- the cars that almost hit him -- close at hand. A Solitary Art
I have an anonymous Oakland, Calif., police officer to thank for awakening me to the aesthetic potential of jaywalking, though his intention was the opposite. If you don't count parking tickets, I've never received a traffic ticket in my life, not while driving anyway. But in 1977 a motorcycle cop in downtown Oakland stopped me just after I'd crossed 19th Street near Franklin. The stairs from the BART station come up in the middle of the block, right across from the bank where I was working. That morning I'd been stuck on the painted middle strip for half a minute while the traffic in both directions sliced past me. When I reached the sidewalk I got not only a fine but also a lecture on the percentage of traffic fatalities that involve pedestrians.
It served me right. That was bad jaywalking. But it was also the beginning of an understanding. I became aware that one has choices when crossing a street and that some are more pleasing than others. I started deliberately to seek graceful solutions to the numerous strategic problems I met in getting to my destinations.
It is a bit ironic to consider that had I owned a car during those years I would never have discovered this highly individual form of expression. We always hear that it is the man behind the wheel of an automobile who epitomizes American independence: His machine is like a separate world, air-conditioned and music-filled, obedient to its master's every command. But today for the most part the range of his commands is limited to Go and Stop. There are just too many cars for him to be permitted much improvisation. The average driver has hardly more decision-making power than a hobo in a boxcar. Whereas the pedestrian, although his body is vulnerable and he has no privacy, retains the ability to move as he pleases and, hence, to make efforts toward beauty.
The jaywalker is more a choreographer than a dancer. The actual motions of his body, in themselves, are inconsequential. It's in the progress of his body through the moving cars that his art lies. He must choreograph with a fast-rolling corps de ballet over which he has almost no control, fashioning his counterpoint against the insensible movement of traffic.
The jaywalker can be compared to the expert rock climber, who sizes up an ascent by asking how he can bring himself from here to there, and from there to the next spot, all the way to the top, without falling or betraying ungainly effort. And for the jaywalker all the boulders are in motion.
Perhaps the artist he most resembles is the bullfighter. The goal is much the same: an elegant flirtation with danger. Both avoid, with as little apparent effort as possible, huge engines of death. Doom charges at the jaywalker as it does the matador, and each sidesteps it with insouciance. It is almost sacrilegious to show so little fear before so terrible a beast! (Perhaps it is no accident that, like the Devil, both bulls and cars have horns.)
Jaywalking is a quintessentially solo enterprise. I know of no great jaywalking duos, and every attempt I have made in tandem with others has been an utter botch. I would welcome contradictory testimony but hardly expect to hear it.
In my experience, women tend to be somewhat less aggressive pedestrians than men, and there are perhaps fewer of them who attempt to jaywalk. But among the elite, the genders seem nearly equally represented. In jaywalking, there is Astaire, and there is Rogers. There is no Astaire & Rogers.
My editor is a native New Yorker; he contends New York is the cradle of creative lawbreaking, the birthplace of jaywalking. He finds the Washington pedestrian laughably obedient to signs and signals, symptomatic of a town whose principal industry is the making of rules. His contempt is boundless; he chortles at the citizenry who stand right and walk left on Metro escalators, merely because that is the regulation.
I do not know New York, but I do not share his chauvinism. I have observed jaywalking here and in many cities, practiced both well and poorly. And I am not against rules, so long as they serve the common good. It is wise to restrict mobility on an escalator. It is prudent to keep humans and automobiles from colliding. But what good is served by having people stand sheeplike at a DONT WALK sign, obeying a mindless electrical circuit even when there is no traffic in sight?
This experience alone should make anyone a jaywalker. But not everyone has what it takes to jaywalk with grace. I suppose there is something rare in the genetic makeup of the truly great jaywalkers, the ones who can sense a car through the backs of their heads, the ones who practice on the interstates and never break stride, the true virtuosi who zigzag down the whole length of Wisconsin Avenue at rush hour without touching either sidewalk. But there is plenty that can be learned by anyone with common sense, good nerves and a willingness to observe some simple rules. Rules of the Road
First, a beginner probably needs a change of attitude. His parents' warnings long ago on where to cross, when to cross and so forth -- these were important orders that had to be obeyed because of the child's immaturity. But as one gets older, as we know, parents' orders gradually wither into mere advice. Obedience is a virtue in children, but it is a weakness in adults and a potentially fatal flaw in a jaywalker. Yes, you must know what the signs say, particularly since motorists are reading them, too, but you should never obey them, unless it is in your momentary interest to do so. Everyone who has ever spent 10 minutes in the District knows that if you WALK whenever you see WALK, your life will be very short. And if you DONT WALK whenever you see DONT WALK, you will never get anywhere; you might as well buy a Seeing Eye dog and let him make the decisions for you.
Every step you take is your responsibility, not any sign's. That's the fundamental lesson in jaywalking, and it's not a bad one for the rest of life either. Learn to rely on your own judgment. That is the first law, but it is worth nothing without the second: Inform that judgment with everything available. Be aware of signs, lights, driveways, turn signals, the pulse of traffic from distant intersections, potholes that might cause cars to swerve, the expression on drivers' faces. If there are parked cars, know if there's anyone behind the wheel; parked cars can become moving cars very quickly. A bus stopping, even behind you, can form a temporary shield to use to your advantage; drivers give buses a wide berth. Being alert and taking all elements of the puzzle into account are essential in composing a path through traffic.
With these basics learned, the real complexity of the art stands before you. Like ballet, it is far easier to demonstrate than to put into words. One thing that gives beginners a lot of trouble is the humble stop sign. Stop signs are like Rorschach tests -- every driver interprets them differently. A walker may be within his rights in stepping out at a corner in front of a car that is clearly not intending to stop, but a right, like any other element in the puzzle, cannot be unquestioningly relied on. The proper way to cross with a stop sign is either to enter the street early enough so that any driver who kept on would clearly be committing a foul, or to cross a bit up from the corner so you have room to cross behind a car as it stops. A nice touch is to signal the driver as you're stepping off the curb, with head or hand, that he should continue forward and not slow down for you. Anything that enhances the smooth complementarity of motion is an addition to the art.
Whenever you cross a street near the corner you must allow for any backup of cars stopped for the light or stop sign. If there are no cars on your side you still must calculate how many cars will be stopped on the other side of the street by the time you get there, so you can adroitly maneuver toward what is to be the likely opening between cars; this is where a basic knowledge of vectors comes in -- where is this car heading, what is its length, what is the probable stopping point of its rear bumper?
There is peril, however, in walking through stopped cars, because they sometimes obscure your view of the remaining lanes. It is embarrassing to walk past stopped drivers (who have nothing to do but get irritated at you), start to enter the opposite lanes and narrowly miss getting killed by cars you didn't see coming, and then have to walk back through the same stopped cars, past the eyes of the same drivers who thought you were a delinquent moron to try to cross that way in the first place. So it is necessary to appraise the oncoming traffic in the far lanes before setting off through the stopped cars.
Crossing at a corner is a complicated business, which is why any experienced jaywalker prefers to cross away from the corner. I know you've been taught the opposite -- we all have. "Always cross at the corner" was one of the first things we learned in kindergarten. Well, forget that rule immediately and forever. A moment's reflection shows how perverse the rule is. In the middle of the street cars can come at you from two directions. But at the corners you have to watch four directions. Time it right at the middle of a block, letting the traffic from both sides pass you by, and you'll have the street to yourself.
As you develop your skills you will notice that traffic on busy city streets tends to flow in distinct waves. Primary waves, where traffic is thickest, are released when the lights turn green at the two lights between which you are crossing. Secondary waves come both from traffic turning into the main street at those corners, and from traffic that had been stopped on the main street at more distant corners.
You will come to notice that, while the midpoint between the lights is the most reliable spot to cross, there can be more effective strategies at, say, a quarter of the distance between the corners. The primary wave from the closer corner will pass first here, and if you time it right, you can often stride past its trailing edge and cross the remainder of the street before the primary wave from the farther corner arrives.
Wherever you cross, try to veer as little as possible from your target; keep in mind that the shortest distance between two points is the straight line. If you are walking down a street and cross it at a right angle, you're losing ground. Look for the hypotenuses! They make life interesting. Crossing a street is not really so difficult, but crossing diagonally, as close to the straight line toward your destination as you can make it, timing it so that the cars don't interfere with you and you don't interfere with the cars -- that's a worthy challenge. Your line will not, of course, be geometrically straight; it will admit a small scallop or two as you accommodate a moving vehicle, tucking yourself in behind its rear bumper, as close as you dare. But the key is to remain moving at all times. It is the inept jaywalker who maneuvers in fits and starts.
The Golden Rule is, don't interfere with the cars. If cars have to stop for you, slow down or even worry about you, you're being gauche. The goal is to cross gracefully, in such a way that the cars and trucks can do exactly what they would have done without you. That's good jaywalking.
And certainly, if you make an error, the genteel thing to do is acknowledge it. Ordinarily, jogging across the street to beat the cars is deplorable, but if you goof the best thing to do is to admit your mistake by quickly getting out of the way.
On the other hand, one can go too far toward making things sporting. For instance, handicapping oneself by wearing black after dark adds piquancy; the Wallendas, I'm sure, would go for it. I myself do not. Some jaywalkers believe they can cross blindfolded, using smell and sound, but most of them, may they rest in peace, could not. One can be a passionate jaywalker without being a fanatic.
No car has ever hit me, but I was bumped by a truck once. I was crossing through some parked cars on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, near 13th Street in front of Mangialardo's sandwich shop. I peeped out from the parked cars until I'd let all the traffic by, then I stepped out. Bang! A delivery van that had gone by me was now backing up to parallel-park. Even on a one-way street (in that case, a divided avenue) it's essential to look both ways, because someone just may be driving backward! (Parents aren't always wrong.) Apart from the shock I wasn't hurt, and when my embarrassment subsided I felt exhilarated: An unexpected dimension to the game had suddenly been revealed.
It may strike you as foolish to take such risks, but what needs dispelling is the notion that there exists anywhere a perfectly safe crossing. Every pedestrian who crosses a street risks his or her life. But the jaywalker has an advantage, because he is accustomed to thinking consciously about the risk. The jaywalker never enters a street thinking there's no need to look because the stop light is a certain color. He knows it's up to him to assay the risk, because he is doing just that all the time. Portrait of the Artist
I have saved until the last a matter that will have undoubtedly occurred to all but the coarsest readers. Jaywalking contravenes municipal ordinance. In the moral continuum, it lies far away from murder and mayhem, but it is illegal nonetheless. This gives me no pleasure to acknowledge. I don't presume to be committing "civil disobedience" when I cross a street; the laws against jaywalking are not unjust laws. Whoever owns the roads has the right to make laws for their safe use. It distresses me to think that because it is so often practiced inelegantly, this art that I love adds to the overall slosh of public rudeness and ill behavior.
At times I have argued that jaywalking is a necessary tactic in a world where automobile drivers in their deadly vehicles flout the most basic laws. What pedestrian has not had the experience in crossing a street, even with the light and in the crosswalk, of having a boor bear down fast and attempt to intimidate one into yielding? (The noblest policy is to pretend not to see the car at all and let him choose between braking and manslaughter.) And who has not had to risk his life walking around a car stopped right athwart the crosswalk, while the driver, looking the other way, revved his engine? (Be ready to jump -- sorry, I can offer no better advice.) But the wrongs of drivers ultimately cannot excuse those of walkers.
I placed a telephone call last week to the Metropolitan Police Department and spoke to Public Information Officer Kenny Bryson. He told me that in the eyes of the law there are three ways to jaywalk: One can cross against a red light ($10 fine), fail to yield to an emergency vehicle ($5) or walk so as to create a hazard ($5). The first is a necessity, but the other two are unconscionable. In any case, considerations of this sort are irrelevant to the self-respecting jaywalker. Even at 10 times the penalty, being cited for jaywalking would cost far less in money than in humiliation. The solution, I fear, is mundane. The skilled jaywalker is already more alert, more aware of his surroundings, than the ordinary pedestrian. Add to your vigilance a search for police officers. If you are caught, it is your fault.
Not long ago I was ambling down Connecticut Avenue when, halfway across Q Street, I heard a little boy, holding the hand of someone I presume was his father, read out from the corner, in a proud, conscientious voice: "Don't walk." I was stung with shame, to be setting so bad an example and disabusing so innocent a being of his trust in an orderly, humane world. I tried to console myself by arguing that his moral deflowering was in any case inevitable -- necessary even! -- but it didn't quite do the trick.
I want it both ways. I recommend the most vigorous enforcement of the anti-jaywalking laws and an increase to $100 in the fines. Raise the hurdles as high as possible! That will keep the timid, the clumsy, the rude, and the common stumbling rabble on the sidewalks and in the crosswalks where they belong.
We artists shall as always strike our own path. CAPTION: TAKING THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD While the obedient pedestrian at the crosswalk must contend with traffic from four directions, the clever jaywalker has only two to worry about. THE PYTHAGOREAN PEDESTRIAN The obedient pedestrian will negotiate a street corner by walking the two shorter sides of a right triangle. As any geometry student knows, the shortest distance is the hypotenuse -- which if timed right can be negotiated briskly but safely on a diagonal through the intersection. USING THE INVISIBLE SHIELD Drivers give a stopped bus a wide berth. This provides an invisible shield that grants the jaywalker the first lane of his crossing. (A shot of exhaust can be an unpleasant penalty, though, for moving too close behind the bus.) GIVING QUARTER Vehicles travel in waves, pockets of cars released by nearby traffic signals. A skilled jaywalker will learn to time these pockets carefully, crossing not necessarily at the center of the road, where the two waves intersect, but at a quarter point. This allows him to cross behind the first pocket and in front of the second, never breaking stride. KEEPING ONE'S EYES ON THEIR EYES The alert jaywalker will watch drivers, to seek every advantage he can. A driver's momentary inattention can afford an opportunity to take a few steps. CAPTION: The author, practicing his craft.