Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

Ideological versus Social Liberalism

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It has more or less been assumed that Black and Latino communities generally harbor a fiscal liberalism but social conservatism, owing in large part to a higher preponderance of religious affiliation, and that their reluctance to vote on moral grounds has been due to the overt hostility displayed against them by the Republican Party rather than an ideological contrast. This has manifested itself in New York, an effectively all-Democrat city, in the form of a cultural division between white middle-class ‘libertines’ and minority strivers: The latter are far less likely to self-identify as gay, when simple biology dictates that statistics should be colorblind in that matter, and it can be conjectured that such is due to community hostility to such.

Indeed, it was in Harlem that a transgender woman was recently beaten to death in what is clearly a hate crime, and it was in Harlem that a Christian minister has been blaming Obama – who has a fair amount of ‘nerd’ chic with white liberals buttressed in no small part by his ‘evolved’ stance on gay marriage – for turning Black men gay. The topic has found itself to be far more taboo than just a few dozen blocks further downtown.

That said, it would appear that such a division is not immutable, and over the last few years a sea change may have occurred. Uptown has seen something of a new Renaissance when it comes to what can be considered an urbane tolerance for all. Six years ago saw the (re-)opening of El Morocco in “Hamilton Heights,” that somewhat awkward distinction of a mixed border area between Washington Heights and Harlem. At first glance it can be interpreted as an extension of the general trend of gentrification on the northern climes of Manhattan, but the clientele says otherwise: More than just a Dominican nightclub, El Morocco has boasted a strong LGBT lineup that has been favored by a majority Black and Latino crowd – and a hangout for Black drag queens, reminiscent of the Elks Lodge and other venues in Harlem in the 60s – though it often offers a fully mixed crowd not only in ethnicity but sexuality.

Six years ago also saw the opening of No Parking, the first fully gay bar in Washington Heights. Along with the Monkey Room nearby and new outposts like the Castro in Inwood, way up on the upper tip of the island, there appears now to be an acceptance of overt displays of alternative sexuality where there simply wasn’t before, in spite of religious doctrine. Indeed, nobody was more surprised than conservatives themselves during the 2012 election, when they expected the socially conservative Black population of Prince George’s County in Maryland to halt progress on gay marriage. Instead, a number of local pastors spoke in favor of tolerance and the youth vote carried the election.

In fact, it may be the youth that is behind such a cultural shift: This generation has been speculated as being, overall, more tolerant than the last, and the root cause appears to be a greater wealth of information at hand as well as physical exposure to difference. While religion still rides the brakes on such progress, across the board all Christian faiths polled in the US have had to give ground on the matter, partly because the next generation is dropping out of religious affiliation in droves. As the population becomes more urban and urbane, and as religion holds less sway on cultural and moral affairs, liberals of all stripes appear to be getting closer together as a unit.

Deals with the Devil

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I get a fair stream of animal rights propaganda in my inbox and on social media – that platform for hashtag warriors and armchair activists – as I’m sure everybody does. It blends into the general background noise of liberal life, a form of the choir endlessly preaching to itself. Liberals are never quite so unified as all that, though, and each has their own tolerance for the wrongness around them and the steps provided to correct it.

Two news stories of late have sparked a bit of controversy in that regard, both related to New York City. The first is, of course, the ongoing fight as to whether the city should forbid any proprietors of horse-drawn carriages from plying their trade in upper Midtown and Central Park. The second is the city’s refusal to admit UniverSoul Circus in town due to the way it cages its animals. In each case, the ideal is pitted against the practical.

Animal rights activists complained that putting workhorses on New York City streets amounts to unwarranted cruelty that they should not have to abide. The owners of those horses and the men who worked with them argued back that the horses were fed well, given regular checkups with veterinarians and granted lots of attention; all of which was paid for by their service as workhorses.

Of course, horses are domesticated animals, which is why we put them to work in the first place: Even should the carriages disappear, riot horses that the NYPD use will still be a common sight around Times Square and during parades. The question to ask, however, is what happens to the horses if the trade is banned? The care of hundreds of workhorses would require a great amount of space and millions of dollars annually in feed and medical care, which, divorced from an income, would be untenable.

This is, in a way, the great conundrum of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the activist group that strongly advocates against negligent and cruel animal shelters and pet shops yet has been criticized for having one of the highest rates of euthanization of the animals under its care, for not only is the group’s stated mantra that “they are better off dead than abused” but, well, it’s cheaper that way. The money matter makes a difference.

It’s this money matter that makes each organization question the other’s motives. In the case of UniverSoul Circus, PETA was one of the loudest critics of their animal handling, and I personally am inclined to agree that circuses with names that don’t end in “du Soleil” are relics of a bygone era – though some organizations tend to overstate the case, as with the controversy over the ASPCA having to pay damages for falsifying evidence about animal cruelty against Ringling Bros’ Circus - but I’m also a great proponent of the work that the Wildlife Conservation Society does when it runs, among other institutions, the Bronx Zoo.

There are, however, critics of the WCS and similar institutions like the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which runs out of the National Zoo in Washington, DC – foremost among them Born Free USA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare – who believe that no wild animal should be enclosed, no matter the size of the enclosure, and that the zoos themselves are also cruel anachronisms in our modern age. The work of the biologists and zoologists in these institutions, they argue, are hypocrites for their work, which I found rather difficult to believe as nobody becomes a zoologist unless they deeply believe in their work.

The divide, however, boils down to money. Organizations like Born Free USA and the IFAW are outperformed by an order of magnitude when it comes to fundraising by those like the WCS, and spend close to half their budgets on overhead rather than the programs themselves. Without the draw of real exhibits, it is difficult to garner attention and solicit donations to promote habitat preservation and wildlife conservation at home and abroad, and in promoting awareness, zoos have the inside track.

Even the Safari Club, a hunting organization, has jumped on the bandwagon to show that it outperforms such charities when it comes to wildlife habitat preservation. Their argument is simple: Nothing beats an entity with a vested economic interest in a species’ preservation when it comes to ensuring that species’ preservation. Call it the Teddy Roosevelt School of Nature Conservancy: If we hunt these animals to extinction, we have nothing left to hunt.

The scary matter is, they may have a point. Ironically enough, it was the Endangered Species Act that may have endangered the Scimitar-horned Oryx, as the Act put restrictions on hunting it, and its numbers were kept up largely because it was being bred for hunting. Without the economic incentive to keep them alive, their numbers dropped like a rock as ranchers dumped their livestock liabilities.

In a sense, then, the zoos are effectively a necessary evil.

This reminded me of the overarching controversy of our most popular museums. The most visited museum in the country is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the most visited museums in New York City are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Each is a monument and a testament to imperial hegemony and colonial theft. Each is also an indispensable resource to history education and cultural awareness. The AMNH, in particular, with its statue of Teddy Roosevelt prominently displayed out front (whose opinion of Native Americans seemed to match his opinion of other large game), has more or less continually been at the head of a controversy when it comes to Native American artifacts yet is also host to a wealth of educational programs that I personally remember partaking in on a weekly basis in junior high school.

The National Museum of the American Indian, which took an act of Congress to come to fruition, also has a checkered history: It works closely with native nations across America to present a diverse, educational display that spans both ancient and modern history, but the vast majority of its original collection comes from the archives of one man, George Gustav Heye, who can generously be labeled an asshole and a grave robber, and much of that collection had to be repatriated. Yet, these displays of stolen property are by far the most popular and therefore the most influential museums in the country. Where, then, is the line drawn?

It’s a moving line, to be sure, but I remember going to the Bronx Zoo and seeing a display about the evils of poaching in a mock-up construction of a poacher’s camp, covered in blurbs about where they operated, how destructive their practices were, and what steps were being done and could be done to curtail them. I would not have seen it, however, were I not already in line to go see the Amur tigers.

Trials and Tribulations

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I did not expect to be stopped – nobody stops bicyclists, at least in this city – but I was. Officer Ramos pulled me over on my block, told me to lock up my bicycle to something, and asked me why I thought he pulled me over. Well, that all depends: How long had he been watching me? I passed by the precinct twenty blocks ago, and I first saw his squad car going the opposite way two blocks prior, where he saw me, made a U-turn and put his lights on. I hedged:

“Probably reckless riding.”

“What makes you think you’re above the law?”

Oh, so he was going to pull out some righteous anger on me. I wasn’t going to rise to the bait.

“I don’t.”

He then went on to explain to me when he first saw me: Running a red light a mile back. And then another red light. Then failure to keep to the right of traffic and straddling the double yellow line. Failure to signal. Weaving through traffic. I don’t think I’d stopped at a red light the whole time. He’d been following me for a while. He simply couldn’t catch up to me until the traffic eased somewhat. Finally, he asked:

“Where’s the bell?”

“What bell?”

“Do you have a bell on your bicycle?”

“No.”

“Why don’t you have a bell?”

“I shout louder than a bell.”

“You’re supposed to have a bell. Wait there.”

By this time, the six hoods who usually hang out by my local bodega had taken interest in this spectacle and were catcalling the cop, who never exited his squad car. It certainly didn’t help his demeanor, but in the ten minutes he spent writing out a ticket, ripping it from his ledger, writing out another ticket, ripping it from his ledger and so forth, he had calmed down somewhat.

“I could get you for every light, but I’m only going to give you one ticket for that.”

Well, that was nice of him, I thought, until I saw that he made up for it with three additional tickets, bringing me to a grand total of four – including one for not having a bell.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“Just how much are all these tickets worth?”

“Eh, the judge will probably charge you 50 bucks or so.” And he drove off in a huff.

Six months later, my hearing in traffic court came up. I pulled up all the requisite information about the tickets, about bicycle law, about my decisions and the divide between the law and reality; I wasn’t going to take this sitting down. I noted names and dates from bicyclist deaths in similar situations to the one I was in, where the bicyclist obeyed the law and lost, pulled evidence that would explain my choice in possible routes and my own (up until this point) clean record despite an unorthodox methodology. The combined fines for all the tickets at full freight would be about $760, which would exceed the cost of the bike I was on, to say nothing of how much more I would have to pay than people who actually struck and killed pedestrians.

I was to go to DMV’s Manhattan North, which like most government offices uptown, was within a remarkably blank building on 125th Street. This would be the first time I’d ever had to defend myself in New York: I didn’t know what to expect. There was no information desk or set of instructions; just a wall of names and the courtroom they would be tried in. My name was listed multiple times, but all for the same courtroom. I couldn’t help but to have felt a tinge of morbid pride that, in my first foray into this world, I took up quite a bit of ink.

I looked at the other names and the people sitting around the holding room. This being uptown, it was mostly upwardly mobile Black and Latino men (no women), one portly Sikh in a suit and red turban, and an old Greek man peppering the middle-aged security guard with questions of protocol. The security rebuffed him with a smirk and a string of sardonic put-downs delivered in pure old-school Noo Yawk accent, before looking upon us hapless loiterers with eyes that said “you see this clown over here?” We grunted in assent.

The cops started streaming in and, soon enough, about a dozen of us defendants/petitioners were herded into a courtroom. The clerk, a Latina woman draped in a shawl with Plains Indian motifs, took our information and put them in a stack for the judge, who must have come out of Central Casting for the role, for life imitates art which in turn imitates life: A pot belly under a grey suit and skinny tie, sporting a flat-top haircut and hard eyes, the man was the perfect illustration for ‘wearied bureaucrat.’

He even spoke in Hollywood tones, further solidifying his role, as he explained how things were to play out: The cop would give his deposition, then the defendant would be allowed to address the issue, and then he’d make a decision. I was to be second. The first person never showed: His lawyer, instead, asked for a reschedule, which was granted for mid-September. Apparently everything is done in six month intervals around here. Six minutes after I was ushered in, I was up.

“Are there any witnesses?”

“Not that I know of.”

The judge gave me a look. Not ten seconds out of the gate I slipped up.

“Uh, I didn’t bring any.”

Back on track. “Are you ready to proceed?”

“Yes.”

Most of the courtrooms had three or four cops enter them, but in mine there was only one: Officer Ramos. It looked as if every person in this courtroom would be arguing their case against the word of Officer Ramos. Now that I got to see him outside of his squad car, I learned with a little amusement that I was a foot taller than the guy. He never looked in my direction, but instead spent his time either looking at his stack of papers or directly at the judge. In a low tone he rambled through the formalities while the judge waited for the meat of his argument.

“On such and such an intersection, where the signals are on the northeast and southwest corners, I witnessed this man proceed against a solid red light and continue northbound through… [...] I decided to follow him, and witnessed him swerve into the left lane at such and such a street heading northbound… [...] I continued following him and on such and such a street, where the signals are on these corners, I saw him enter the intersection westbound and turn north without signalling… [...] I stopped him at this street and asked for his license. He complied and gave me a Class D license with this name, whereupon I saw that he did not have a bell on his bicycle.”

The judge, who had been drawing layouts of intersections with arrows and street names looked up. “Wait. This was all on a bicycle?”

“Yes.”

“This red light ticket is for a car.” The judge summarily stamped the ticket Not Guilty and flung it into a outbox for such tickets. A Black man waiting behind me chuckled, which launched an instant rebuke and an imperious gaze from the judge.

“I was only coughing!”

“That was no cough.” There shall be no tomfoolery in this courtroom! The judge turned back to the cop.

“Also, you describe four incidents. I only see three tickets before me. What happened to the ticket for Failure To Signal? Did you take care of it prior to this hearing?”

“No,” I replied.

“Where is it?”

The cop shrugged. “I don’t know.”

As it turns out, tickets that are mis-written are not entered into the system. On to the next ticket, for Failure to Keep Right. “You say he was on the left lane?” asked the judge.

“Yes,” answered the cop.

“Give me a moment.” The judge pulled out a thick green tome, and the cop and I waited as the judge looked up this bicycle-only law. Once satisfied, the judge turned to me. “You are now able to question the cop and/or give a statement.” I was on.

“I’d like to make a statement about Failure to Keep Right. I was in the right lane when a bus was pulling out of a stop. I moved to the left lane as I expected the bus to occupy the right lane. The bus, to my side, however, instead chose the left lane, so I moved to the double yellow line so as to avoid a collision.”

“And the bell?”

“Well, I didn’t have a bell on my bicycle.”

Stamp Not Guilty for Failure to Keep Right, Guilty for No Bell On Bicycle. “You have two weeks to pay a $40 fine. If you don’t pay in two weeks, a $70 fine is added and your license is suspended. As this is a bicycle violation, no points are taken off your license. Next!”

40 dollars. Hey, the cop was right!

In Defense of Delivery Men

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When I was a bicycle messenger, way back yonder before the Bloomberg bike lanes and the Citibank shares, I plied the streets of Manhattan with a fervor one can only get by working for less than minimum wage. As an “independent contractor,” I was not on salary, and my wages were by delivery: $1.50 per drop, normally, up to $2.50 or $3 for particularly large and onerous packages. Ten to twelve hour days doing hauls that gave me a couple bucks at most, in by far the most vulnerable vehicle in city traffic was tiresome, difficult work.

Had I followed all traffic laws for motor vehicles plus the six extra laws for bicycles, I would have made maybe $50 a day. Suffice it to say, that’s not enough to live on in the City of New York, even ten years ago. The requirements of the job forced me to take risks to my own person, far above the assumed death wish of riding a bicycle in the city in the first place, as to make anything approaching a living wage you had to ride like a bat out of hell. In a way it was the best worst job ever: The job was thankless, it took years off my life and I came home smelling like bus exhaust, but it gave me an appreciation for the vagaries of city life I would otherwise have overlooked.

It’s this understanding that I have when I find the litany of complaints compiled with the overt indifference to the plight of restaurant deliverymen to be one of the more vexing aspects of the class divide in my fair city. One of Bloomberg’s last acts as mayor was to enforce the 2004 ban on the use of electric bicycles, which are entirely the domain of restaurant deliverymen, with fines that take two to three days’ wages from them. This prompted rallies and demonstrations by affected deliverymen, who said it made their jobs difficult to impossible to accomplish, but the crackdowns are once again increasing under de Blasio.

Their argument was that the jobs they were meant to do, where-in they were paid a pittance or in some cases relied entirely on tips - which inexplicably remain around the $2 I was receiving - were already marginal at best, and while their trade was ubiquitous in most New York neighborhoods, it was untenable at the current rate if they were to get increased police scrutiny: They simply couldn’t afford to follow the law, and they certainly couldn’t afford to pay the fines. The counter-argument by most residents is that the deliverymen are nuisances at best: They ride up the wrong way on one-way streets, they regularly run red lights, and with their little motors they put around at close to twenty miles per hour; a hazard to pedestrians everywhere.

Would that those same residents would realize that either the deliverymen could come promptly or they could come legally; often-times it’s impossible to do both, and it means a lot to the deliveryman’s bottom line. This, I suspect, is not at all considered during their complaints – what the deliverymen must actually do to accommodate them is beyond their comprehension. The deliverymen, to them, were anonymous: Not people but means to an end.

I was lucky in this regard: While most of my coworkers at the time had missing teeth and a history of broken bones from plying their trade in a hostile landscape, we were completely invisible to the police. The cops had better things to do than to attempt to chase down a messenger when more lucrative tickets were available, such as some moron with Jersey plates blocking the box or a box truck at the wrong place at the wrong time. That invisibility was a reprieve from what my fellow commercial cyclists must now suffer.

Of course, while injuries to bicyclists are still a scandal in this city, injuries to pedestrians from bicycles – even electric bicycles – are slim to none, and no deaths to pedestrians have occurred due to such electric bikes, but the enforcement crackdown has made itself felt by those deliverymen that are an indelible aspect of New York apartment living. It is an improper response to the problem: The problem is that these men aren’t paid enough, and that the cost of the food and its delivery is altogether too low to be sustainable in a legal fashion. They bust their asses and play merry havoc with the law because to not do so means eviction and starvation: I should know.

This means that two things should happen: One, restaurants must pay their service personnel living wages, independent of tips. Two, those very same residents who complain that their deliverymen are a blight should put their money where their mouths are. In order for that Kung Pao Chicken to come in fifteen minutes legally, that restaurant would have to hire enough deliverymen to wait on standby for the food to be prepared so that they may send it directly. The question is then posed: How much is that Kung Pao Chicken really worth?

The Culture of Inequality

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It’s hard to explain the scope by which our society is unequal, in terms that strike at the heart of the issue rather than merely adduce the result as the cause. Mayor de Blasio, for instance, settled a long-standing discrimination lawsuit against the Fire Department of New York dating back to 2007 – from an EEOC complaint from 2002 – awarding $98 million to minority plaintiffs who were passed over from serving in the force.

The complaint was that, in a city that’s 27% Black, only 2.9% of the FDNY’s firefighters were Black. The federal government and the EEOC argued that the reason for such was an institutional bias in induction standards that had nothing to do with the skills a firefighter must display, centered around the entrance exams. The controversy, pundits declared, is how an ostensibly blind exam could be said to be biased in the first place.

To answer that, there is a 2010 study by Maria Santelices and Mark Wilson about bias in the SATs – the College Board’s standardized exam for induction into most American universities – which describes a concept called Differential Item Functioning. Professors Santelices and Wilson confirm a 2003 study by Roy Freedle of the Educational Testing Service, wherein he observed that people of similar educational backgrounds and proficiency would differ in standardized test results largely on racial lines.

Freedle noted that white students had an easier time with the verbal questions because the terminology matched what they tended to hear in their daily lives. Only when the questions became particularly difficult did Black students surpass their white counterparts, as the vocabulary used was likelier to be formally learned rather than culturally absorbed. In short, the way the questions were worded had a cultural bias.

The Village Voice argued as much in 2010, citing specific examples of obtuse and overly technical terminology used on what were otherwise remarkably simple questions, when they weren’t simply digressive from the actual skill tested, and made the argument that the tests as offered were biased towards those whose family members were already part of the the FDNY, and would thus expect either to have heard such vocabulary used prior to the exams or to be coached as to what to expect on the exams, apart and above general training. In so doing, the largely Irish and Italian firefighters could keep control of a pool of employment within their fellowship.

This tends not to be the argument most accepted, however. In a very similar circumstance, for instance, it was recently reported that only seven Black students were accepted into Stuyvesant High School, New York’s premiere elite public school, this year. Again, the admissions departments cited the blindness of the citywide Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. However, despite charges of counselors guiding minority students away from the elite schools as well as the unequal nature of primary education in the city, pundits are divided on the cause of such an imbalance.

Part of the defense of such an imbalance, where Stuyvesant is over three quarters Asian when it used to be over three quarters Jewish, includes people like Amy Chua, whose articles in the New York Times and whose book – earning her the moniker “Tiger Mom” – push a racialist argument that certain cultures simply value education more than others. This strikes hollow, as there has always been a significant Chinese population in the city but the Chinese dominance in Stuyvesant’s demographics is a recent occurrence.

Indeed, Chua alludes to something that may be closer to the issue, however unwittingly:

Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.

Cuban-Americans in Miami rose in one generation from widespread penury to relative affluence. By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year. All three Hispanic United States senators are Cuban-Americans.

Meanwhile, some Asian-American groups — Cambodian- and Hmong-Americans, for example — are among the poorest in the country, as are some predominantly white communities in central Appalachia.

Why do Nigerians and Cubans succeed more often than not where Cambodians and Hmong don’t? Why do Dominicans have a greater rate of college graduation than Puerto Ricans? Why are the Chinese succeeding now where they didn’t in the 70s?

The common element is urbanity. The Nigerians immigrating in today tend more often than not to be an urbane, educated middle class from Lagos. The Cubans who exist in Miami and in New Jersey hail heavily from the merchant and middle classes of Havana. San Juan, due to its history as a backwater under the Spanish empire, has lagged behind Santo Domingo, which has been a trading hub for several empires. And suffice it to say, the influx of Beijingese, Shanghainese and Taiwanese moving into Flushing today differ from the more rural Fujianese, Cantonese and Hakka down in Chinatown.

Just as Japanese-Americans tend to be richer than Japanese at home because rich Japanese were more likely to relocate to America, so has the subject of immigration obfuscated the true problems inherent in the inequality of the system overall: Black students are failing despite diligence against adversity because the system is not set up for them to succeed – they tend to be zoned for the worst public schools, with little test preparation or guidance, and then set up to compete with those who have extra-curricular resources available – but this message is hidden under the narrative of “hardworking immigrants.”

In a way it exposes both how New York is a global city, in that people from all around the world can come and plug into local institutions very quickly, but also how New York is a divided city. There is a certain Bolshevik flavor to the argument that people of the same class have more in common with one another than people of the same ethnicity or nationality, but what the FDNY and the NYCDoE seem to have in common is a class rift so stark it may yet have manifested as a cultural divide.

Despite aptitude itself being colorblind, the test-makers and the schoolmasters have indeed fostered and maintained a cultural bias along class lines that we are now at risk of defining once again as a racial quality. In that stead it is important to stress that the problem is class and that our public school system – an institution created explicitly to transcend that barrier – is not doing its job correctly.

When Communication Breaks Down

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Walking out of the subway, I became witness to a cascade failure of the common street protocol that makes city living possible. When the city works, it works. When it doesn’t, however, tempers flare.

An emergency at my subway station had prompted the NYPD and FDNY, along with a number of ambulances from New York Presbyterian, to descend upon the scene. The presence of their vehicles narrowed Broadway from four lanes to three lanes, creating a traffic backup on one of the busier cross-street intersections. Private vehicles navigated this bottleneck the way they usually do, which is to break every law imaginable. The city buses therefore had difficulty in maintaining schedule, and after bunching up four deep, chose to resolve that issue by riding the shoulder whenever possible.

A white woman in her thirties, brunette, with the sort of top on that you would see in a Tibetan fashion store, was waiting at the corner to cross the street, up at the edge of the curb, looking away from traffic. A bus pulled up to the corner, honked, inched forward, and honked again. She did not move or look towards the traffic. The bus driver, a Black woman, inched forward until she had cleared the white woman, and then opened the door right in front of her. The white woman immediately stated to the bus driver,

“I am on the sidewalk!”

“What you don’t understand–”

“I am on the sidewalk!”

“Listenlistenlistenlistenlisten,” the bus driver intoned, “right there is a dip, and–”

“I am on the sidewalk!”

“You’re blocking the crosswalk,” said a Dominican man, as the light had then changed.

“Right there is a dip, and if I were to go on as I did, I’d– ” “You’re blocking the crosswalk!” “–I’d have knocked your head off!”

Indeed, on MTA buses, the rear view mirror, which juts out almost a foot beyond the bus itself, is covered in bright decals reminiscent of barber shops as a warning to people that when the bus runs in, crab-like, to each stop, they’re at risk of being brained. Furthermore, twenty feet ahead was a bus stop, which was how the bus could ride the shoulder in the first place.

I had, at this point, rounded behind the bus to cross the street, along with thirty other people who had recently exited the subway, so I don’t know how the altercation had resolved, but what I had seen was a plain example of a breakdown in public protocol. The pedestrian had failed to pay attention to traffic or extenuating circumstances, and as such could not see to take a step back to let the bus pass, which would have minimized the blockage in order to cross. That she was legally correct did not alleviate the traffic situation in any way.

As such, the bus driver reacted angrily, and thus exacerbated the breach of protocol by lecturing the pedestrian, further blocking other pedestrians from crossing the street, to which they in turn reacted angrily by shouting interjections at the bus driver. In one sense this is a system in the process of self-correcting. In another sense, the necessity to self-correct is a sign of an inadequacy of the system. Enforcement is needed only when something has gone terribly wrong.

If public protocol is anything, it is the act of predicting immediate instances of “if you would just X, I could do Y,” where the smooth continuation of activities is paramount. The law itself is a poor approximation of that basic social contract, and the actual practice thereof is predicated on constant and continuous awareness of one’s surroundings. The bus driver, in being focused on the one pedestrian (and her own ego), failed to heed the needs of the folks who were looking to cross the street. The white woman failed to heed that the law and reality are not one and the same thing, and was thus inconveniencing everybody else on that corner.

The best solutions thus far for traffic has been to remove signage entirely, which forces everyone to pay attention at all times, although such a lesson can extend far beyond simply traffic. Just as the first lesson to any tyke going out on his own is to always look both ways, perhaps some refresher courses are in order.

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