I remember being both mystified and irritated, back when I owned and drove a car, when usually poor, usually black, people would cross the street against the light in front of me, as if daring me to hit them. Their demeanor was almost always erratic, inattentive, and slow. Sometimes they seemed intoxicated; sometimes over-medicated; sometimes mentally ill. They seemed barely to notice me or my car. Only once in a great while would one of them give me a hard, direct look in the eye, as if to say ‘I know exactly what I am doing, and you can’t do anything about it.”
I became upset, in part, because it seemed such a dangerous, even potentially suicidal, thing to do. I would cringe in empathetic anguish at the mere possibility of serious injury, as one does when one sees a dog or a small child wander into traffic. I resented what seemed a toying with my emotions as I was made to feel such fear and anxiety on behalf of someone who appeared so extremely irresponsible and careless of their own safety.
I tried to think of explanations for this annoying behavior. I thought it could be a variation on a set of practices going back hundreds of years; a slave’s strategy. As such, it might be a form of resistance, a willful getting in the way of the oppressor, just as moving slowly, especially while working, had been one of the few forms of resistance for a slave.
I also thought, on a more basic, existential and psychological level, that crossing against traffic might be one of the few expressions of power available to people who have neither money nor institutional position with which to exercise their will. I am enough of a follower of Nietzsche to believe that the ability to realize the power of one’s will is essential to human existence. This rudimentary form of pedestrian civil disobedience is not significant enough to get you thrown in jail, but it is a way to throw a monkey-wrench (or a wooden shoe) into the machinery of a society that has devalued and disregarded your humanity.
Nowadays I find myself smiling with delight when I see a brother saunter casually toward an intersection, arriving at the corner just as the light turns against him, and then stepping smartly into the crosswalk and blocking all those people who had anxiously watched for the green light and stabbed the accelerator with their toes the instant the signal changed. Their cars make a half-jump into flight and then lurch to a stop so as not to hit the errant pedestrian. You can almost hear them cursing him, except that the glass and steel surrounding them is designed so efficiently to cut them off from actually being in contact with us that we cannot hear them. And you can almost see the cartoon-steam blasting out of their ears.
The pleasure I take on these occasions is akin to the anger I feel when, crossing with the light, as I am wont to do, I am startled by a car, especially if it is an SUV, bearing down on me at a reckless speed. These drivers seem to race to the white line that demarks my safety, charging toward a red light and then braking at the last possible moment. My heart always leaps into my throat in the very moment that my peripheral vision picks up this rapidly approaching large metal object. And nowadays rather than scurrying to the curb, which I feel they want me to do (“Get out of my way, low-life!”), I automatically slow my pace to a crawl, sometimes even to a stop, lingering right in front of the offending vehicle’s bumper. I stare through the windshield, sneering at the driver. Sometimes I hold out the index finger of my right hand and shake it at them, as if to say “Tsk-tsk-tsk. Shame on you.”
The drivers who are in such a hurry now seem to me callous, self-involved, and downright rude. Indeed, they have made me realize that the automobile, quite probably the single most destructive invention ever devised by humans, is the actual demarcation of a class line. Here in the Tenderloin, we pedestrians are the poor, and the cars that rush along our streets carry members of classes that lie at least two or three steps above ours. And in addition to being sealed off from us by these multi-ton boxes in which they ride, the speed at which they move is another clear manifestation of their disdain for us and of their intense desire not to have to interact with us in any kind of personal encounter.
[About the automobile: not only has this invention quite likely destroyed the delicate ecological balance that has provided a habitat in which human beings could flourish, possibly leading to the extinction of the species, but it has also torn apart the web of interactions among individuals that defined our societies. In cities born since the beginning of the twentieth century, individuals now glide past one another encased in tons of glass and steel that prevent communication and even recognition of one another. People no longer exchange ideas and goods and services and opinions and themselves with each other in the kind of public spaces -- market, forum, plaza -- that constituted what a city -- and therefore what a civilization -- was.]
I am reminded of the French aristocrats in the time of Louis XIV to Louis XVI who were carried on the shoulders of two or four strong men through the crowded streets in wooden boxes, “sedan chairs,” holding under their noses oranges studded with cloves, or something else that would give off a strong but pleasant odor, so that they would not have to see or smell the vulgar masses.
And we all know where their disdain for and indifference to their fellow human beings led them in fairly short order. [See Accounts Payable.]
So you in your BMWs, Escalades, and Priuses -- how’s that workin’ out for ya?