The Lottery, Writ Large

Engine Summer, by John Crowley, is one of those science fiction books that doesn’t read like science fiction. The world of the story is so real, so plausible, so tied to our current troubles, that it seems begotten not made.

Early in the tale, the protagonist, a boy named Rush That Speaks, leaves his cozy, low-tech enclave to go on an adventure with Seven Hands, his father. After walking for a while, the two gain a height from which Rush catches his first glimpse of Road. Disused for many years (decades, if not centuries), Road has cracked and crumbled, given way to trees and shrubs. No one has driven a motor vehicle in living memory; the technology needed to do so has been intentionally destroyed. Thanks to anthropogenic catastrophe, the Earth holds far fewer humans than it once did.

Staring down at this strange and wondrous ribbon, Rush asks Seven Hands, “What was it…for?”

“To kill people with,” Seven Hands replies. “The cars….went fast, you see, faster than bats but not so carefully, and so they collided all the time….But in the ancient days, they didn’t mind much…there were millions of them; they didn’t mind a few thousand killed.”

Nowadays, the annual number of deaths by motor weapon, in the United States alone, far surpasses “a few thousand” (Crowley was writing in the 1970s): It ranges from thirty to forty thousand, and the only statistic that reliably correlates with the casualty rate is miles driven (which, in turn, tends to rise when the deathconomy is thriving, and fall when it’s doing badly). Meaning, no matter what laws you pass, no matter how strictly you enforce those laws, no matter how many safety measures you take, Road is bound to claim tens of thousands of human lives per year (as well as countless lives belonging to beings of other species). This is why I refuse to call any motor-vehicle-related tragedy an “accident”: all such tragedies are expected, accounted for, built into the system. In our collective unconscious, we accept rampant bloodshed as the cost of doing business.

Which raises the issue of disposability. Is it true that we simply don’t care about losing thirty to forty thousand souls per year, in a country of more than three hundred million? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we feel a certain irritation with those vast hordes of others who are fucking shit up (e.g., by having abortions, or worshipping at a mega-church, or owning guns, or voting for Trump). Or maybe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we believe that if we fasten our seatbelts and obey “Don’t Walk” signs the black dot in the lottery will never claim us, or someone we love.

Roads vs. Paths

Friday afternoon I took the train to Grand Central, then walked a couple miles downtown to return a pair of shorts and try on backpacks at REI. As I walked, my face tensed in anger; my thoughts morphed into a stream of invective against fellow pedestrians (“It’s okay to PAY ATTENTION to what’s going on around you!” “Get the FUCK out of my way!”); my body shifted into alert each time I crossed the street. By the time I reached REI, I was a bitter, muttering, bristling mess.

Today, walking home from the Beacon train station, along a wide road in hot sun, my mood soured again. No, I wasn’t dodging plodders on iPhones – I was braving a route not made for me, reacting to its built-in brutality. (Last night, at dinner with, among others, a Ugandan priest, I noticed that he said “path” where I would have said “road,” maybe because even when he drives he’s seeing the route in terms of people first, then vehicles.)

What’s brutal about a wide, paved road? Well, great swaths of Earth were flayed to make it. Other swaths were drilled and hacked at, for matter to coat the gash. Still other swaths unwillingly yielded the metal and plastic comprising the vehicles for which the road was intended, and the oil to rocket them forward. Regularly, and without comment, drivers on roads like this kill creatures who are not human; often, and with comment, they kill creatures of their own species. The threat of death – the memory of death already inflicted – pervades my walk. The lack of shade, the dismissal of walker as afterthought, doesn’t help. Meanwhile, the metal boxes my brethren travel in shield them from congress with me, and their fellowbeings.

I felt, as I neared home, the price I pay for walking (am I being kind to myself, when I step outside?). And recalled a dream I’ve had for years, of long-distance footpaths threading town to city to farm to village (with huts at intervals, for stopping overnight). I could walk miles and miles – explore the county and beyond – if the local circulatory system acknowledged my existence. Why confine epic walks to paths like the Appalachian Trail? Why not stitch a web for foot travel everywhere?

Paths vs. Roads

About four miles from where I live, there’s a community farm where I sometimes volunteer. It’s a lovely place, run by beautiful people. When I leave the road and enter the preserve surrounding the farm, I feel the air change – it cools, gentles, swells with moisture and birdsong. If the farm were next door, I might visit every day. If I could reach it by walking path, I might go a couple times a week.

As it is, I appear intermittently; having to share a busy road with motor vehicles turns the trip from lark to hurdle. Not only must I travel alongside giant hunks of metal that could kill me in an instant, I must also feel each force field as it hurtles by (when I’m walking, I often let particularly strong force fields push me a few feet off the road; when I’m biking, and leaving the pavement is more difficult, I usually don’t). Also, since the road is wide, and meant for people toting their own weather shields, there’s little shade. I absorb heat rising from asphalt, heat pulsing from sun. Yes, I enjoy the push of my legs, the rhythm of my steps. Yes, I’ve walked and biked thousands of miles on roads such as these. Yes, I’m terrifically stubborn about filling my daily quota of self-propulsion. Also I’m tired of fighting for space, on roads that disregard me.

So. Does our web of highways bring us together, or tear us apart?

At Earthaven I could travel from house to field to farm to orchard without encountering speeding hunks of metal. Though the roads allow for motor vehicles, they’re narrow enough to welcome humans on two feet; the recommended driving speed is a crawl. Sure, I’d love it if the gas guzzlers gave way to trikes and cargo bikes – but even in their current form, the web of roads through the village invites me out for a stroll.

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.