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Ahh, the sidewalks of New York

By Lenore Skenazy

In New York, our lives overlap on many fronts. Your car alarm goes off, your street wakes up. You overcook your fish, your neighbors gag. You hold the subway door open, you have saved the guy behind you’s job. We are densely, intensely interconnected, but no place more so than on the sidewalk.

And no time more so than after a snowstorm.

As I waited my turn to traipse single-file through the Kilimanjaro of snow at my corner last week, my teeth gritted in fury even as I attempted a cheery, “We’re all in this together!” grin. (Hard on the jaw.) The truth is, we are all in this together, but our sidewalks are like L.A.’s freeways: a place we’d all love to gun past absolutely everyone else, if only we could.

“I hate slow people,” says substitute teacher Elizabeth Atkinson Cuccia. Her strategy for avoiding them is the same used by NASCAR drivers. “My eyes are always scanning for a potential opening so I can scoot around them. I’m good at finding holes that I can worm my way through.”

It’s not that Cuccia, of College Point, feels no empathy for the slow. Her mother uses a walker and she herself broke her foot a few years back, hobbling so pitifully that strangers stopped to offer her a ride. (See? We may be impatient but we’re not heartless.) (We’re scary people who offer rides to strangers who can’t run away once we start driving them to the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge.)

Now, however, Cuccia is back to fighting trim, and when those in front of her are busy gaping at tall buildings, or wearing headphones, ambling in time with Adele, her sympathy gets displaced—as do those slow pedestrians. Whoosh! She’s on her way. Then, unable to stop herself, she turns around to see just how far behind they are.

I’ve done that, too.

We all have our favorite techniques for passing the pokeys.

“On the street, I usually walk along the curb to go around the slow people. Or I huff and squeeze past them, sometimes with a little extra shoulder check action,” says Kate Schliebin, a Brooklyn mom not to be messed with.

“There are times when I will sneeze a big sneeze so they get grossed out and move out of the way,” reports resourceful Freddy S. Zalta, an author. Another guy I know walks as loudly as possible. Me? I whistle, aggressively. It’s part of that “cheerful” thing again—“We’re all in this together! (But you are in the way.)”

About five years ago the group Improv Everywhere went down to the Flatiron District and painted a line down the middle of the sidewalk. They labeled one lane, “Tourists” and the other “New Yorkers.” Then, wearing official-looking vests, they queried pedestrians, “Are you a tourist or New Yorker?” directing the amazingly compliant folks to the right lane or left.

“Excuse me, m’am,” one of the actors said (you can watch it on YouTube. Look for “Tourist Lane”), “are you just going to stand there? Stand in the tourist lane. That’s for slow people.”

A woman directed to the fast lane said, “As a New Yorker, I appreciate this!”

The Improv folks told her to thank the mayor—Bloomberg at the time, who later declared the project “a nice thing to do.” (Does he count as a New Yorker, considering he’s from Boston?)

Another Improv Everywhere participant held a clipboard as she explained to passersby deadpan that, “There are a lot of pedestrian accidents between New Yorkers and tourists.” This lane initiative, she said, was just one possible way to keep everyone a little safer.

The lanes remained on the sidewalk for four days before they were removed. One wiseacre on the group’s website suggested that next time, they should create a smartphone lane to make for a “safe, obstacle-less, continuous walk.” But I guess it’s no surprise that the Improv folks had already tackled that problem: In another project they provided “Seeing Eye People” to help people text-and-walk safely. Improv participants in bright orange vests cleared the way as people holding on with leashes followed behind them, texting. “Watch out! Texter coming through!” the guide-people shouted.

It’s all really funny—except when I’m texting. Or gawking, or gaping, or totally confused as to where I’m going or where I’ve gotten out of the subway. Then I’m the speed bump and you’re the New Yorker who can’t give me one single second to get my bearings.

And I go home and overcook my fish.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and the author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.

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