The Pedestrian Problem
Several evenings ago, I was riding the L train with my friend Peter around 2 AM when a large, shirtless man with six-pack abs offered me a Percocet and a swig of what he assured me was “just vodka” from a slightly crumpled water bottle. After I politely declined, the man, who had rhinestones glued to his torso and flecked around his eyes, blurted out, “What? Did your friends back in Idaho tell you not to drink from strangers on the train?” Now, this sort of ad hominem attack normally has no effect on seasoned metro commuters such as Peter and I. In fact, after refusing the man's offer we simply returned to our discussion of the pros and cons of investing in Cambodian real estate. But our newfound friend was not satisfied. He turned his attention to the rest of the train to gauge his support from the other passengers. They all stared intently at the wall in silent protest, but the man was obviously an intrepid individual. He straightened the bejeweled tiara on his cleanly shaven head and continued.
“Why are you out?” He yelled, “Why are you here? If you aren’t going to do drugs with me what the hell are you doing on the train at 2am?" His gaze snapped to another passenger, who was intently scrolling through his phone, and he raised his hands in a monumental shrug. “There is no service down here!” He shrieked, “We are on the train! What on earth could you be doing? Why are you even here?”
But then, as the man’s expulsion reached a true fever pitch, the doors popped open and Peter and I nearly fell out into the Eighth Avenue station. We of course tried to take all of this in stride and simply forget the whole situation, which seemed more than possible for two individuals who had never so much as seen a speck of Idaho from the highway. That is until I was walking through the Union Square Subway Station a week or so later and I was confronted, no assaulted, by the common plague of this otherwise efficient and masterful port of transportation.
Having lived in this city for some years now, I have developed the same gate that any reasonable person who finds himself walking 30 or so blocks a day would. There is a certain pace that a man on a 13-mile island with four million others develops as a matter of conscientiousness and self-interest. If every occupant of the island moves at this pace, then the island ticks like a clock. The people move from their homes to their places of work, from SoHo brunches to West Village happy hours, out to rock shows in Bushwick. They slide from board meetings and internship interviews in Midtown to Indian restaurants packed in side streets around Madison Square Park. The sun absolutely smiles down on Manhattan and the island blooms with fervor.
But this is scarcely ever the real state of affairs, and in Union Square I came to a tediously close proximity with the northwestern root of the issue as the words of our rhinestone speckled friend began to exhibit an unexpected truth.
There in those halls below the park I was dashing forward, entrenched in the buzz of the prosperous city, when I was forced to take a smashing halt or run through the back of an absolute turtle of a man and a thick slough of his glacial relatives. I was suddenly lost in a sea of loose fitting jeans, knee length plaid shorts, and matching t-shirts. I did my best to dash around the side of the herd but, in spite of my best efforts, it was quite some time before I could flank out into oncoming traffic and round the mass.
I was finally free and making a dash for the 4/5 when I glanced back at the leader. He was of average height and probably 57 years old with a grand grey moustache over his mouth and a bald eagle embracing the American flag on his ball cap. But even in a glance I could tell that his eyes were exceptional. They were deep pools of grey that spoke of immense intelligence and a life well lived. The man was obviously competent, a step ahead even. He was not used to being the blockage in the system around him. Had he been aware of his present situation, it would have undoubtedly pained him.
So as I leaned my back against the door of the 5 train and rattled my way toward Wall Street, I was terribly puzzled. How could a man of that caliber not see or appreciate the gorgeous machine surrounding him? How was he not ashamed of the awful hurt he was doing simply by existing with less spryness than the other inhabitants? And then I understood. There was someone in Idaho responsible for this!
A week or maybe two weeks earlier the man had undoubtedly driven his pickup truck to some local gathering place. He had walked into a bar or a barbershop and announced to the other members of his town that, “We’re all going to New York City for a weekend.” Everyone had, of course, had something good to say. He had almost certainly put his hands in his pockets, smiled behind the moustache and continued, “Yes, the old lady has been wanting to go somewhere new for a good bit now, so we thought why the heck not New York?” Then the others had all mumbled a bit more, mostly about how their wives would not mind the same sort of thing now and then. The man was then surely saying his goodbyes and making his exit, going home for an early night, when one of his good buddies piped up above the others with something undoubtedly like, “And Jim (or Al, or Jack, or Lance), when you’re there everyone walks real fast, but don’t let it bother you. You just go at your own pace and the people will walk around you. No sense in rushing the whole gang, it’s supposed to be a getaway anyhow.”
And days later here was the man, now the obstruction of New York City’s arteries, the blight on the flower of Manhattan, the true justification for the screams of the bedazzled 2 am subway rider. But worst of all, it was not through his own ignorance. The man had been dismally misled.
Even more terrifying, this behavior cannot be limited to vodka and walking speed. There are unquestionably men all over Idaho recommending faulty action in almost every area of city life with no knowledge of their awful effects.
But there is a possible solution! Idaho has only 1.634 million residents and a well-placed ad campaign might in time conceivably reach them all. I call on our great Mayor De Blasio and the other esteemed City Hall heavyweights to strike New York’s troubles where they lie: in Idaho.
Buy airtime, post on billboards, drop leaflets and write phrases in the sky above cornfields! We can inform them of our sensitive ecosystem and pose to them a simple question: “Why are you even out?”
Let us mobilize and take up this task: a more conscientious Idaho today for a better New York City tomorrow.