Doctor Willis and Mr. Walker

In Improbable Mutterings on August 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Witness the horrific transformation!

I could see them more than a block ahead: four abreast, rubbernecking at the surrounding buildings and signs. Tourists? Or merely insensible? Little matter: they were taking up the whole sidewalk, moving at what could generously be called a snail’s pace. They seemed oblivious to the flow of people around them. The crowd rushed up against them like a stream against an unexpected fallen tree; confusion and a growing pool of frustration built up behind the blockage.

I tend to get around a lot on foot. Toronto’s a good city for walking: it’s flat, is laid out in roughly grid-like fashion, is generally interesting and attractive for those of us inclined to weave through its many hidden streets and laneways. Since moving here, I’ve wandered up and down most of its downtown paths, on errands, going to work, or just plain meandering.

I guess I consider myself a pedestrian aficionado. I know all the best walking streets to and from my home, in any direction; I’ve got the timing down to the minute for how long it will take me to get to Bloor Street in one direction, and to King Street in another. I have the best shoes for any occasion, and don’t believe you can spend too much money on a good pair of walking shoes. (These days it’s Clarks, but I’m also a life-long devotee of the Rockport.) I’ve been to some of the great pedestrian cities of the world, like London and New York. They do not suffer sidewalk lollygagging lightly. I feel at home in such places. I wish we could import some of that vigour to Canada.

They were mere obstacles, impediments to progress. I was within 20 feet of the insensible huddle of so-called bipeds, and decision time was imminent. The street was teeming with cars, trains and bikes; to step out into their traffic would be madness. This was an issue between walkers – leave the other forms of locomotion out of this.

I walk quickly, and anyone who has walked a significant distance with me will know that keeping up with me is a chore. I don’t do it on purpose, or to irritate; I’ve long been a fast walker, and it’s just hard-wired into me that walking is my primary mode of transportation. I’m a city kid by birth and by nurture – not anti-car per se, but someone who calls the sidewalks “home,” and who road-hops like Frogger.

Not to sound grandiose, but walking, for me, is living. I think more clearly when I’m walking; rambling leads not only to adventure, but also to great conversations; touring on foot is the best way to see and know a new place. Walking focuses my mind, preventing my distraction-prone imagination from spiralling off into unproductive tangents.

“Excuse me,” I say, to no effect. There are several glances at the surrounding din, as if perhaps the question spouted from some upper floor conversation between pigeons. “Excuse me!” A reaction this time, and a look of indignation. “Who’s this upstart,” the look says, “and why are they in such a hurry?” Their blockade of the sidewalk remains unaffected by my weak diplomacy.  

And then, the transformation.

In almost every respect, I am a peaceable, gentle nerd. I look nerdy; I act nerdy; I aid and abet nerdery in general and in many particulars.

But there is a chink in an otherwise polished surface of harmlessness: I suffer from “pedestrian rage.”

Put me on a sidewalk, let me build up momentum so that I’m churning up the ground at a healthy pace. Then impair my progress, and witness a transformation that will startle and amaze you.

A shadow creeps over my brow; my eyes narrow; my back hunches, ever so slightly, as if my muscles had all contracted and were ready to spring out; frustration and loathing radiate from every pore. I am, at this moment, unrecognizable, to others who know me, and to myself. I become a seething engine of perambulatory destruction.

What is it about bad pedestrian behaviour that makes people so crazy? Is there something like road rage that afflicts those of us on foot? Why do seemingly inevitable (and sometimes foreseeable) delays in movement and traffic transform otherwise normal people into ill-tempered batteries of self-righteousness? Why is it so personal?

The choice: to plow through the thicket of uselessness, or circumvent it, risking life and limb in the torrent of vehicles to the side? I will almost choose the latter, favouring expediency over confrontation. And yet once and a while, perhaps in order to make a point, I will, with all the grace and subtlety of a linebacker, intrude into a fast-walk-stopping fence, confident that some forgotten deity of pedestrianism is watching over me, ensuring my safety and moral right protect the flow of movement that makes our society continue to function. “Ours is a special breed,” I think, “protected by divine right, and a speedy getaway!”   

It doesn’t take much to set me off, but if you do succeed, chances are it had something to do with impeding my movement. Standing on the wrong side of the escalator? Feel my eye rage-lasers boring into the back of your skull. Paying for that $2 coffee with a debit card? Go to the slow-motion line, mutant. Driving your bike slowly on a crowded sidewalk? Witness my Mad Max impression (in slightly scuffed leather shoes instead of the Ford Pursuit Special). (Very old people and parents with strollers – single or double-wide – get a pass; the world is too rich in bad pedestrians to pick on the infirm and those bearing the burden of little ones.)

Once I’ve cut through the Gordian Sidewalk Knot, I emerge free, reverting to my usual bookish form, and feeling slightly, mysteriously guilty. Who was that malformed creature, bleating from behind the slowly-moving cattle behind me? What misbegotten circumstances led to its creation? What terrors lurk amidst these teeming streets!   


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