September 03, 2002

At last. At long last, someone feels our pain.

It's the pain that comes from being a fast walker in a snail's-pace environment. It's not a physical pain, but a psychological pain, a persistent form torture consciously or unconsciously inflicted upon the swift of gait by our fellow, albeit less determinedly ambulatory, sidewalk pedestrians.

I am among those who normally walk fast. Sometimes unusually fast. At times, alarmingly fast. Even when I'm not in any particular hurry. I have no idea why I do this, but it is a habit picked up, or a trait acquired, during childhood. Nor is it a habit I care to break, either voluntarily or by surrender to the life-draining pace adopted by others.

Walking at a rapid clip can cause considerable frustration and exasperation, and it is a virtually inescapable predicament. Whoever said New Yorkers are always in a hurry never attempted the trek from 57th St. to 48th St. on virtually any of Manhattan's north-south avenues.

Granted, areas of the city overrun by hordes of seemingly dazed tourists and/or pretentious boutique shoppers, or hampered by the constant construction and reconstruction of buildings great and dismal (no city loves its scaffolding more than New York -- the crap can stay up for years after a project is completed), present the greatest opportunities for sidewalk rage. The same holds for neighborhoods characterized by centuries-old, absurdly narrow sidewalks. Yet even in neighborhoods not so encumbered, the dowdy Upper West Side for example, the sidewalks are crammed with meandering zombies blissfully unaware of their surroundings.

I've always known I wasn't the only person prone to the potentially pernicious effects of this trait. Over the years, a growing but still small number of friends and relatives have admitted to being charter members of the Get the Hell Out of My Way Society. Typically, however, I have learned this fact during whispered conversations in a hidden nook of someone's home during a dinner or cocktail party, the self-confessed speed demon reluctant to offend those in attendance who might live, or at least walk, at a more leisurely pace.

Now, however, a cherished kindred spirit, unfortunately unidentified, perhaps out of fear of reprisals that likely would take the form of still greater aggravation, has published what could easily serve as our manifesto, "Can't We All Just Move Along?", in today's edition of the Chicago Tribune.

"Anyone who has ever been trapped behind a herd of slow-moving pedestrians knows the feeling of utter despair," the statement begins. "The seconds tick by slowly and the blood pressure soars as the frustrated pedestrian seeks passage around the sidewalk clot. If they're going slow [sic] enough, you can feel yourself being sucked backwards into yesterday."

Apparently daily life continues to erode the minds, hearts, and souls of Chicago's fleet-footed, "what with the outcroppings of construction scaffolding, Mayor Richard Daley's sprawling flower planters, al fresco cafes, manic street performers, daredevil bicycle messengers, gaggles of preteen girls with gargantuan American Girl Place shopping bags, and dawdling cellphone-addicted strollers," along with "menacing in-line skaters and skateboarders, . . . those infernal green sidewalk-sweeping machines[,] and maintenance guys who feel compelled to hose down the sidewalks at midday, creating more potential snail-zones, not to mention wet shoes."

The writer offers a few quick tips of sidewalk etiquette:

"First, the obvious. Sidewalks exist so that people may move from Point A to Point B. (Hence, the verb 'walk.') Strangely enough, some people are a bit fuzzy on that concept. Step onto any downtown sidewalk, and you will notice two kinds of people. 1.) Those who want to get somewhere; and 2.) Everyone else."

And this: "Helpful hint: The sidewalk is not a mall. If you're walking six abreast, or trying to walk baby carriages side by side, you are blocking traffic. People are trying to get around you. Hear those muttered curses? See those folks contorting themselves to squeeze past? Take the hint."

These are useful reminders but they barely begin to cover the full ground of offenses members of the Get the Hell Out of My Way Society endure on a daily basis, ground that has been tended to by the organization's 64-page official manual, "Normal Sidewalk Behavior in Civilized Societies," a direct and instructive phrase preferred over the coy and gently suggestive term "Sidewalk Etiquette." Ask for a copy the next time you're passed by that handsome, sharp, and quick young man who really does have someplace to go.


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