a field guide for taming the wild pedestrian
When I arrived in New York 25 years ago, there was a shared sense on the street that if you didn't follow the rules you could get hurt.
Figuring out the correct side of the sidewalk and how to navigate taxis, bike messengers, and loose mental patients was part of survival in this tough City. It was also part of being a good fellow New Yorker. You felt proud of yourself as you accomplished the ways of the City. Similar to stepping confidently onto a "people mover" at the airport, you learned what "regular coffee" really meant at a street cart, how to fold your Times so as not to annoy fellow subway passengers, how brief a question needed to be for a New Yorker to answer it, and that you always stayed to the right and moved attentively on the sidewalk.
True New Yorkers knew these things. New New Yorkers wanted to learn them quickly. Visitors wanted to know so as not to draw attention to themselves. We were all in it together. And if you hadn't figured that out yet, you quickly did, or risked being run off the curb.
But today, there is an epidemic of untamed pedestrians roving the sidewalks as if none of this was ever necessary. Whether they were raised without socialization, came to NYC fooled by the promise of a Lego or Disney store on every corner, or simply are disconnected from the real world by their digital devices, too many pedestrians have become stubborn obstacles on a maddening course, unaware of the danger they put themselves in, or the disruption they are to the City's flow.
Who are these untamed pedestrians?
Certainly none of them grew up with the hand of an Atticus Finch wresting gently on their shoulder and a firmly intoned, "Scout, you know the rules, stay to the right." Nor, for that matter, did they have a Roseanne Conners swatting them on the back of the head and bellowing, "what's wrong with you? Get out of those people's way."
Though not always, they are more often from the generation whose parents hovered over them endlessly, repeating "say 'excuse me'" so consistently that these children never actually needed to say it for themselves (but nevertheless were rewarded with fruit roll-ups or Krispy Kremes at the other end of the block).
Like anti-vaccinators and creationists they shrug off physics or necessity, and argue unwaveringly for their rights to do as they wish, no matter how dangerous or annoying they might be to everyone else.
In a recent New York magazine post titled "What Happens When a Woman Walks Like a Man?," blogger Jessica Roy and many of those who commented on her post seem so hell-bent on blaming the problem on gender and other biases, that they step right over (or even kick) commenters that point to the basic rules of navigation, as if some irritating hall monitor was ruining their rage-fest. In their minds, it can't be that there's an easier way to share the sidewalk. It must be that other people are mean and aggressive and want to disrespect them.
Likewise, I'm also surprised at how boldly many newbies physically confront oncoming strangers on the street. How do they know the person doesn't have a knife, or a gun, or a violent temper and a personal goal of snapping the next millennial they encounter in half?
My partner Bob is a 6'3" middle-age guy. You realize he's a big teddybear the moment he speaks, but on first sight he can be scary. So I don't understand the number of much smaller pedestrians who play chicken with him when he himself is minding his own business on the correct side of the sidewalk.
But they do.
I never would have presumed to be so aggressive with strangers when I first came to New York. The idea was to be wary, because anyone could be dangerous.
And in reality, that's still true today.
But the newbies don't realize it, and we seasoned New Yorkers aren't doing our duty.
Recent books and articles pointing to this epidemic have been written with the offending pedestrians as their audience. Brie Dyas' Huffington Post article on general daily rudenesses and Nathan Pyle's very insightfully written and cleverly illustrated NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette, are very earnest attempts to kindly alert the offenders to the proper behavior.
However, this current breed of untamed pedestrians are unfortunately too ubiquitous and deeply in need of some mass tougher love from the rest of us.
Therefore, we need to arm ourselves with insight, courage, and bold techniques, like the ones used by our predecessors in the generation of New Yorkers who enculturated us when we were newly arrived or deviant.
To the experienced New Yorker, these sidewalk greenhorns have nearly as many variations as species in the wild. I've identify ten types below and suggest ways to introduce them to sidewalk etiquette.
Dos and Don'ts
When you encounter one of these ped-xers, I don't suggest shoulder butts or mean retaliation. And, remember that you, my fellow seasoned and sensible New Yorkers, must continue to follow the rules of the sidewalk yourself, or you yourself will become just another annoying asshole on the street. Promise me, and yourself, that while using this guide, you'll keep to the right, be aware of others, and won't hurt anyone.
At the same time, do, by all means, do be one of those New Yorkers who originally trained us: be straightforward, consistent, a little bit crazy or grumpy, but assertive enough to make them think twice about putting themselves in contact with the unpredictable strangers with whom they must share this City.
Ten Most Common Types of Untamed Pedestrians
• Most common sightings: almost anywhere, clinging to the wall to your right.
• Antidote: sometimes a firm, but wordless, hand gesture toward your left is sufficient to change their course.
• If that doesn't work: stay as far to your right as you can until there's nowhere else for them to fit.
• Most common sightings: Lower East Side; NYU area; outside most high schools.
• Antidote: walk directly toward them clapping your hands and shouting, "heads up!"
• When you finally get their attention, it's fun to watch them jump, but don't expect them to recognize you as human.
3. Water Bug
• Most common sighting: Chinatown; Canal Street; Port Authority; wherever it's too late to do anything about it.
• Antidote: again, try waving your hand to your left, repeating in an even tone, "Look out. Look out."
• If that doesn't work: there's not much more you can do than stop and let them veer off at the last second toward some other pedestrian.
4. BFFs (or Conjoined Twins)
• Most common sightings: NYU area, Chinatown; that spot on the sidewalk ahead of you where the traffic appears to part like the Red Sea.
• Antidote: call out clearly, "Keep right. Rest of the world coming at ya'."
• If that doesn't work: when you're a little more than arm's length away from them, gesticulate broadly with your left hand and let out a quick short cough or bark. It wakes the lovers back into the real world and sends the Anime BFFs scurrying like pigeons.
5. Brat Pack
• Most common sitings: NYU area; Upper West Side; whenever you yourself are in a hurry to get somewhere.
• Antidote: if you are walking with someone, take his or her arm, stay to the right, and walk with purpose.
• If you don't think that will work: stop abruptly in their way to look at a store window or speak seriously to the person you're walking with. Make it seem random or absentminded. It's not confrontational, so they won't know what to do with you.
6. Sidewalk Princess
• Most common sitings: 5th Avenue; SOHO; the seafood aisle in Dean and DeLuca.
• Antidote: if you are carrying a newspaper or umbrella, when you are still about ten feet away, use the object to gesture once directly at her and then point to your left.
• Or more likely, since very little you can do will matter, just hold your ground on your right and let the bags rattle as they may.
7. Cock of the Walk
• Most common sightings: 1st Avenue between 48th and 59th Streets; Murray Hill; the Financial District; outside sports bars.
• Antidote: this is another good one for a newspaper or umbrella gesture, or simply calling out, "Keep right. Share the sidewalk."
• Or better yet, walk toward him pretending you recognize him from work or business school days, and then suddenly lose all expression and walk right past him at the last minute.
8. Bulldozer Mom
• Most common sightings: West Village; Upper West 80s or Upper East 90s; Park Slope; at the bottom of the escalators at Whole Foods.
• Antidote: call out, "manners start early. Teach your baby to share the sidewalk."
• Or better yet, stop, as though you're really interested in her and her child, hand her a business card for an early childhood behavioral therapist, and murmur, "make sure you attend the session, too."
9. Leash Lasso
• Most common sightings: Chelsea, NoLita, Murray Hill, or next to most any fire hydrant.
• Antidote: call out, "Mind your dog. Clear the sidewalk."
• If that doesn't work: though I'm tempted to suggest giant clippers, it's best to just stop in front of the dog or the leash, and holler, "DUDE!"
10. Omaha Steaks
• Most common sightings: Theater District, Little Italy, World Trade Center, Rockefeller Center, or just on the other side of the subway turnstile that you need to pass through.
• Antidote: I'm more forgiving of tourists, but they need to learn quickly that they have a lot to learn. Gently tell them to move out the way and keep right.
• Or better yet, carry copies of Pyle's NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette to hand out to them.