Walk, walk, walk says my cardiologist. And I do, mostly just as a way of getting home. But I also enjoy it, though the Manhattan tempo is so accelerated that what might be called walking easily becomes run, run, run. This adrenaline-driven tempo has transformed me into one of the legions of jaywalkers who influence others by dint of negative example. One definition of a jaywalker is “a person who crosses a street without regard to traffic regulations.” How true. Jaywalking at mid-block one day near America House, and extolling its time-saving benefits, I was given momentary pause by the friend with me who said, a little apprehensively, “But shouldn’t we cross at the corner?” She’s from Long Island, though, and maybe they don’t jaywalk much there. Implicitly, however, what she was really saying might be translated, Why not slow down? But Manhattanites resist that kind of advice.
My pace becomes more intensively rapid if I have to celebrate the 5:30 Mass at my parish in Lower Manhattan. The distance from work is about three miles—just over an hour’s fast walk. My usual route takes me down Sixth Avenue to 42nd Street, where I swing through Bryant Park and over to Fifth Avenue. Encumbered as Fifth Avenue sidewalks are at rush hour with tourists and people heading home from work, moving among them entails complex weavings and side-steppings to avoid collisions.
Intersections along the way may involve rapid decision-making. From experience, I can tell when a light is about to change just by watching the expressions on the faces of waiting drivers—their eyes start to narrow, their lips purse, as they prepare to press sharply down on their gas pedals as soon as the light turns green. If I’ve reached the curb as the light changes to yellow, I generally leap forward, holding one arm outstretched toward the line of cars waiting for the green light as a kind of psychological barrier between them and me.
Not that I rush forward alone. Invariably others follow suit, sometimes even when the light turns red and, in theory, tells us to stay put. But New York walkers scorn such commands. Their leaps into traffic tend to elicit angry responses in the form of horn-blowing from the drivers who shoot ahead toward them, annoyed not only at having to slow down but reacting also to a sense of being hoodwinked. Of course, the drivers themselves are no more law-abiding than the pedestrians. They often stop in cross walks, forcing pedestrians to walk around the hoods of their cars into oncoming traffic.
The truly law-abiding tend to be out-of-towners, who can easily be spotted by their strict adherence to all traffic regulations. One often sees family groups standing obediently and a little fearfully at the curbs, holding hands and absolutely refusing to set foot onto the street until the walk light flashes on, no matter how empty the street might be. For them, a city like New York poses myriad dangers. Manhattanites tend to hurry past groups of this kind, viewing them askance with a certain impatience, if not disdain.
Some of Manhattan’s broader thoroughfares have islands down their centers, with seasonal flowering shrubs that can tempt even the fastest moving pedestrians to pause in admiration halfway across, before rushing ahead to complete the crossing. If I have a few minutes to spare on my way home, a short slowing down on the island may sometimes be in order. It allows me to admire, for example, the sunlight glinting on the upper windows of the surrounding tall buildings, or the dazzle of a clear day’s sky high above their rooftops. Fast walking does not assume blindness to the city’s very real beauties. Crossing through Bryant Park one late winter’s day, I actually stopped to admire the daffodils that were forcing their way up through the snow.
Following Fifth Avenue straight down, I reach Washington Square Park, home of New York University’s main campus, but also an extensive green space with a huge fountain and numerous trees. With time running short, I cut diagonally through this park too, ignoring benches that might tempt me to sit awhile and observe the student life that goes on there.
And so on to the parish, a day’s exercise behind me. Would my cardiologist be pleased? Perhaps. But at times I remember my Long Island friend’s words about crossing at street corners rather than jaywalking, and her implied admonition to slow down. Maybe she’s right. But how can I, a dweller of Manhattan, where the jaywalkers rule?