Canary in the Crosswalk

[I wrote this essay in February 2014, when I still lived in New York.]

According to the New York Police Department, motorists killed 178 pedestrians, and injured more than 12,000, in New York City in 2013. These numbers are tragic enough. But they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t count how often motorists terrorize pedestrians by speeding, or running lights, or failing to yield. They don’t count how many citizens have curtailed walking activity out of fear.

I am one such citizen. I suffer from Pedestrian Terror Stress Disorder. The symptoms? Let me walk you through them.

* * *

Around 10 A.M. on Friday, January 31, 2014 – a few days before I learned that the Tri-State Transportation Campaign had named Flatbush Avenue the deadliest street in Brooklyn – I approached the intersection of Flatbush and Carlton, from the north. I steeled myself as I set out, with the walk signal, across Flatbush’s vast expanse. I was relieved to see maybe a dozen other pedestrians in the crosswalk with me.

I was just steps from the far curb when a car driver started turning the corner in my direction. The motorist was neither careening around the corner, nor slowing or stopping to acknowledge my right of way. As that ton or two of steel advanced towards my unarmored body, the threat it posed fused with every other threat I’d ever felt in the presence of a motorist to send a jolt like an electric shock through my chest. My arms leapt up in a futile gesture of self-defense. I jumped back. I screamed. A split second later, the motorist slowed down. A woman behind me in the crosswalk asked, in alarm and disbelief, “Why is she screaming?” Gaining the far curb, I pulled my hood down to conceal my eyes, and cried.

* * *

I wasn’t always like this. Growing up in Park Slope from the late 70s through the early 90s, I walked without fear to Holy Name School, to the Park Slope and Central Libraries, to shops in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. I circled Prospect Park like it was my backyard. As a young teenager, I made my first solo trek through Gowanus – then a post-industrial ghost town – and over the Brooklyn Bridge to visit the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. I gauged my progress towards adulthood by how far I could walk on my own.

When I returned to Park Slope as an adult, in 2005, I committed to walking at least five miles each day. Sometimes I walked around Prospect Park, or explored nearby neighborhoods. Sometimes I walked to Manhattan, for work or errands, then took the subway back. By the time I started graduate school at Hunter College in 2012, I’d logged thousands of miles on New York City sidewalks, and successfully crossed thousands of streets. I’d moved, with my husband, to the Columbia Waterfront District. I figured I’d walk the seven miles to Hunter’s main building at East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, then take the train home. As usual, I’d combine travel with exercise.

To reach Hunter with minimal motorist conflict, I tried every route variation I could come up with. I tried the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. I tried Broadway. I tried Park, Lexington, Third, Second, and First Avenues. It was only after changing my route a dozen or more times that I conceded: I would not find a peaceful walking route to the Upper East Side.

By late March 2013, seven months of escalated exposure to motorists had damaged my nerves more than I knew. On March 28, as I crossed Cadman Plaza West where Clinton meets Tillary, two cars, in two parallel lanes, careened in tandem towards me. I shouted curses at them; I flipped them off. Then I broke down crying.

But I didn’t give up. I made it – with more curses and tears – across the Manhattan Bridge, and across the gauntlet of Canal Street.

And then I reached Delancey, at the Bowery, where the walk signal seemed to have lost all meaning. How was I to cross, with the light, with speeding motorists swerving into my path, from both uptown and downtown? The traffic cop, standing at the median with her back to me, only made things worse, waving motorists on even when the light was against them. I made it as far as the median. There I sank onto a low ledge and sobbed. After a few minutes, I retreated to the south side of Delancey and called my husband, who picked me up in his pedicab. I took the subway home.

For a week or so after my meltdown at Delancey, any sudden movement, on street or sidewalk, sent a shock through my body. Even kids on scooters startled me. I had to take the subway round-trip for most of my last two months at Hunter. Since then, the shocks have diminished in frequency and intensity. But they haven’t left me.

* * *

A few hours after my recent outburst at the intersection of Flatbush and Carlton, I was walking home from Park Slope, by way of Gowanus, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. Still raw from the morning’s run-in, I screamed in two more crosswalks – one at Union and Nevins, the other at Court and Union. Approaching Clinton and Sackett, I tried to soothe myself with silent assurances: It’s okay. You’ll make it. You’re almost home. I was about to cross Clinton, with the light, when a white van roared into – not up to – the crosswalk and stopped short at its far border. It seemed that the driver hadn’t noticed the light, let alone the crosswalk with walk signal. Much as I wish my version of PTSD could be cured with calming herbs and a course of talk therapy – much as I wish it were all in my head – it isn’t.

* * *

So what do I do, as a New Yorker afflicted with Pedestrian Terror Stress Disorder? Do I leave the city? Navigating on foot is not necessarily easier in small towns or suburbs. Do I get my own personal “YIELD” sign and thrust it forward, like a cross meant to ward off vampires, each time I cross the street? Do I adjust my routes – travel blocks, even miles, out of my way – to avoid the hairiest intersections?

The one thing I won’t do is address the symptoms while ignoring the cause.

It’s not me, New York. It’s you.

I’m just the canary in the crosswalk.

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