Sunday, October 08, 2006

Pedestrian

The American body, my friend explained, is an aggregation of man and machine. The latest addition to it is the computer. Very soon, a body not seated in front of a blinking screen can be considered as ill as a body outside of a car.
--Andrei Codrescu, "The New Body"

Once, many years ago, when I was young and foolish, I was crossing the parking lot of a grocery store in Florida when I looked up to see a Cadillac traveling at least forty miles per hour (in a parking lot!) heading right for me. I do not know what possessed me, other than a personal hatred for bullies, but I stood my ground in a kind of social experiment to see whose sense of rightness would prevail. The car did stop, of course, but its driver glared angrily at me as if I had violated his freedom.

Now I live in London, where crossing the street reveals a great deal about the differences between the US and the UK. In London, nearly every block has a crossing signal, with a button that summons a little green electronic pedestrian announcing (along with an articulate beeping) that it is safe to cross the street. In addition, as every
confused-by-its-counter-intuitive-reversal-of-traffic-flow-foreign-visitor to the UK will recall, many streets exhibit welcome near-the-curb reminders to "look right" or "look left" in order to facilitate checking for oncoming vehicles in the right direction.

But it is the British crosswalk that truly fascinates me. All over London pedestrians will find clearly marked, cross-hatched paths which, the second they enter, stop oncoming traffic seemingly without fail. Nearby road signs, small and not clearly visible, alert drivers to these crossings, but, even after over ten visits to London,
I still find their power amazing. I am sure British traffic statisticians can tell me exactly how many people are run down on the cross-hatchings each and every year, but I trust them implicitly, in a way I would never trust any similar system in the US. Back home, I drive--and walk--defensively. Out and about in the public sphere, I assume the worst of my fellow motorized beings. The British seem so much more civil.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word "pedestrian" has the following meanings:

-noun
1. a person who goes or travels on foot; walker.
–adjective
2. going or performed on foot; walking.
3. of or pertaining to walking.
4. lacking in vitality, imagination, distinction, etc.; commonplace; prosaic or dull (my italics).

Pedestrian (meanings 1, 2, and 3) concerns are not always "pedestrian" (meaning 4). Sometimes pedestrian matters tell us much about the society in which we live.





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