If you want to feel lonely in New York City, just wait for the “walk” signal.
I spend a fair amount of time in New York—for a Texan, anyway—sometimes for my karate training, and sometimes because people in the publishing industry want to hear from me (I think they find my accent amusing). Last September I was in Manhattan for several days, a good portion of which I whiled away on various curbs, waiting for the lights to change, and watching New Yorkers step briskly past me into oncoming traffic.
New Yorkers don’t like to wait. Time passes quickly in the city and they want to keep up with it. As an out-of-towner, I was moving outside the local slipstream of urgency, so I had plenty of time to observe the New York method of navigating crosswalks: A brief glance right or left (never both), and then a determined stride out into the street, as if daring the cars and bicycles not to yield.
New Yorkers have a much more free-flowing approach to vehicular traffic than residents of other cities, and it’s fascinating to watch the natives thread safe paths through their environment. They seem to possess a heightened awareness of the complicated and deadly square dance each intersection hosts; an awareness quite independent of what the street signs or traffic signals communicate. New York pedestrians are expert at gauging how long an approaching bus will take to cross their path, or which cars are likely to yield when challenged.
I envied these New Yorkers their willingness to plunge into danger every fifty yards or so throughout their daily lives, but not enough to try emulating it. I would watch in admiration as an expensively-suited businessman bolted out into the street, holding up one hand to stay a honking, cursing, taxi driver. But even in the midst of my admiration, part of me was thinking, You’ve never been hit, have you?
I have—an experience recounted in an earlier column—and it left me with a much more acute awareness of pavement than most pedestrians have. Which is why I wait for the “walk” signal.
My immobility had curious effects on other people at each crosswalk. Often, if I was the only one at the curb when they came up, they’d hesitate. They would notice me waiting, and glance at the little red hand on the crossing signal, and you could see doubt set in. A few of them ended up halting resignedly and waiting with me, as if a teacher had just caught them trying to cheat on a test. More often they would pull up, paw the ground for a moment, then check once more for traffic and continue into the street. (I worried about this group, since I was disrupting their natural rhythm. If any of them had gotten hurt, I would have felt responsible.) And then there were some who just wanted company; they would pause until another walker came along, and then cross in tandem, their need for peer validation satisfied.
Still, I had made them pause, and there was a certain feeling of power in that.
I had brought two books with me on my trip to New York, and was reading alternating chapters out of them at night in my hotel in Chelsea: James Wolcott’s memoir Lucking Out, about New York in the 1970s, and Clarence Day’s Life With Father, set in New York in the 1890s. Switching back and forth between the two works produced a mild strobe-like effect in my brain, not unpleasant, which was perfectly suited for walking around the city by day, watching people trip over hundred-year-old drainpipes while engrossed in their iPhones. New Yorkers may be savvy about traffic, I decided, but there is a lot of history here, cluttering up the beaten paths, and it’s hard to be aware of it all, all the time.
Which makes New York a great place to practice awareness, that critical component of self defense. Awareness is an intricate concept. We may think of it simply as a heightened perception of what’s going on around us in the moment. But to be useful, awareness must be informed by the past as well—by our own experiences, by what we know or think has happened to others, and by our general knowledge of the world and how it works.
That’s a lot to juggle. For example: I make it a habit to notice people’s behavior on the street. Homeless people, passersby, random shouting assholes—they can all pose threats. They can also (and much more often do) provide a valuable opportunity to practice awareness—to assess risk and broaden one’s understanding of human behavior. If I’m practicing awareness as I should, I’ll ask myself questions about the people around me. How fast are they going? What are they carrying? Where are they looking? (usually at their iPhones.)
At the same time, I want to be aware of my own location and movement: Am I heading toward my hotel, or away from it? Have I been in this part of the city before? I’m trying to remain aware of sensory input too: What can I see in front of me? What can I hear behind me? What on earth is that smell? And as I process all this data, I’m gauging my own reactions to it. That guy makes me feel nervous. Why? This woman seems to be upset; what makes me think so? By noticing my responses, I’m practicing self-awareness, “listening to my gut,” and educating myself about the world.
The demands of maintaining this complex cognitive matrix are a significant factor in my disinclination to jaywalk. I have enough on my plate even when I’ve got the right-of-way. And New York adds all kinds of variables to the mix. For example, as I walked down Fifth Avenue one day during my visit, heading toward 23rd street for a black belt class, I passed right through the site of the Empire State Building shooting, which had taken place the previous month. I strolled blithely over the spot where the victim’s killer had been shot by police, and where several bystanders were hit by stray bullets. But I didn’t even notice at the time.
I wasn’t unaware of the shooting. I had followed the breaking news online from my office in Texas, seen the aerial views of the crime scene, and watched security video of the cops firing on the shooter when he pulled his gun. I had all kinds of information about the crime, but it wasn’t part of my awareness when I stood in the place where it had happened.
And yet I was distinctly aware, during my entire stay in New York, that my hotel was just a few doors away from the building where Nancy Spungen was murdered (allegedly by her boyfriend, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious) in 1978. I did think about that killing, often—especially as I was trying to go to sleep. God knows who else has died on that block, or any block, in New York, but Spungen’s death seemed more real than any of them. I couldn’t stop being aware of it.
Neither obliviousness nor hyperawareness increases our safety; we have to strike a balance. Ideally, our awareness of the present is informed by our knowledge of the past, but it should also keep us open to the possibilities of the future. This is a key difference between good and bad self defense instruction: The bad kind tunes your awareness exclusively to threats. It can leave you feeling as if danger is omnipresent and inevitable. The good kind makes you aware of your own potential to influence what’s happening around you.
A good self-defense instructor teaches people how to realize that potential, and how to practice it. By standing still on a crosswalk, for example, and making other people pause. Or (another hobby of mine), seeing how many drivers you can make eye contact with as they whiz past. All you have to do is look at them—right at their eyes. More than half the time, I’ve found, they’ll return your glance.
This is a useful skill, in traffic and elsewhere in life: the ability to make people see you. It certainly improves your odds of getting across a busy street safely. If the driver of that approaching taxi sees you, he may choose to stop rather than run you over. If he doesn’t see you, whatever goodwill he possesses won’t help you.
Ironically, the one vehicle that almost ran me over during my sojourn in New York was a horse-drawn carriage. I have boycotted carriages ever since my wedding night, when I was launched out of one into six lanes of traffic by a hit-and-run driver. Crossing the street into Central Park one afternoon, I stepped out in front of a horse and carriage, believing I had seen the “walk” signal. I was wrong. The glare of the sun had deceived me; the red hand of warning was up, and I plunged headlong (in true New Yorker fashion) into the path of dozens of cars, and one very large horse.
Horses, I know from experience, have trouble seeing anything directly in front of them, so it was lucky that the carriage driver was alert enough to spot me, yell, and stop his horse. Well, this would be an ironic way to die, I thought, before I managed to scamper back to the safety of the curb. I’d been so traumatized by my experience as a carriage passenger, it hadn’t occurred to me that they pose a substantial risk to pedestrians.
I risked my neck to get into Central Park that afternoon because a 73-year-old woman had been beaten and raped there just a few days before. In broad daylight, while she was birdwatching. It was a dreadful, depressing crime, and the perpetrator (though he was eventually arrested) hadn’t yet been found. I felt compelled to visit the place where this had happened—in part to glean any information that might make sense of such a senseless crime (How thick were the trees? How much foot traffic passed through that part of the park? How far did sound carry?) But I also felt as though walking along the winding paths of the Bramble, being present in the place where the crime occurred, was important. I hadn’t noticed when I crossed the spot by the Empire State Building where two men died. I wanted to stand in this place where a woman had survived, and be aware of her survival.
Traffic intersections are just one of the many places where we cross paths with danger. We weave in and out of hazards constantly, one way or another; we all take risks simply by walking out the door each morning. Life, like New York, is one intersection after another. Our fates converge like cars that yield, collide, or miss each other by inches.
New York is a city where anything is possible—another reason it’s an ideal place to practice awareness. In New York, you realize that violence can happen anywhere. And so can anything else. Awareness is the first step to making it happen.