Advice: Walking Tips for the New York City Visitor
“Sprung from cages…” like in Bruce Springsteen’s song, that’s what it feels like alighting on the streets of the city every morning. When you first learn to drive, they teach you to maintain a panoramic view of that which lies ahead, to be alert and aware of whatever lies in your peripheral vision and to be considerate of those who are right behind you. Great lessons to learn for new drivers but who would have thought this applies to walkers!
I never would have imagined that there would come a time in my life when my mindset would have to morph into that of a motorized vehicle! It seems all the rules that apply to driving, apply here to walking, in equal measure. For instance, strong peripheral and panoramic vision, quick pace, never falling below the speed limit which the natives actively enforce through a few choice expletives, such as the ever popular, “Bonehead!” An unfortunate utterance to which my very suburban better half has on occasion been subjected, much to my considerable amusement. You see he tends to be one of those people who wear the scarlet letter “T” for tourist rather prominently on their person. These unfortunate souls tend to stop mid-stride to tilt their necks at a ninety degree angle, to the vertical plane of the rest of their body, just to gaze all the way up at one sky-scraper or another!
After nine long years of being a frequent traveler to the city I am finally confident that I have my New York navigation, as a pedestrian, down to an exact science. Keen observations and studied analyses have led me to find the paths of least resistance that help me get from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to my destination, my place of work, in 12 minutes flat, every morning.
The chess-like calculation and forward planning really needs to start as soon as you emerge from your bus or your train; your gaze intent, aiming for the double doors that have a steady stream of people exiting. This way you don’t have to push open the doors and if you find the right space between the exiting mass of bodies, you won’t even have to hold the doors for the people behind you!
Once you are out on the streets you need to demonstrate an obvious determination in your stride, pulling the proverbial blinders on and gazing at an indeterminate space at least two inches above the eyes of all approaching strangers as you start walking, looking for gaps between oncoming walkers and looking out at least 15 yards ahead of you. If someone appears to be coming straight at you, you need to visibly turn your feet either to the left or the right, forcefully signaling your blatant intention of not colliding with them. Of course, if the approaching person takes a step to their right, as you take one to your left, desirous of the similar avoidance outcome, the collision may still happen. So minimal eye contact may be necessary after all!
The other lesson to be learnt and internalized to the extent that it becomes a natural reflex is the art of jaywalking. Jaywalking finesse is what separates the true, dyed-in-wool, New Yorker from a bumbling tourist. Get ready to become an elbowed, bumped, possibly stampeded outsider, if you are waiting for the sign with the little walking man to start blinking. Instead you need to be watching the intersection light. You must time your “avenue” crossing such that the light is about to turn yellow, so that as soon as you cross to the other side of the avenue, the light at the “street” crossing has just turned green for you, enabling you to cross the street and the avenue in one smooth L-shaped maneuver; experts here choose to traverse the imaginary hypotenuse connecting the two points of said L, in the interest of saving precious incremental seconds. .
Lastly, one must acquire the craft of “car thumping” as a pedestrian. This rather focused show of ire is reserved for those unfortunate cars that are attempting to complete their left or right turns or have advanced too far into the crosswalk before managing to stop at the red light. Several angry fists are sure to descend on the hood of the spotless suburban vehicle bearing New Jersey or Pennsylvania plates. The hapless driver sure to be told, in no uncertain terms, “Go back to Joisey!!” while he cranes his neck over his steering wheel to discern the extent of denting on his hood. It is the pedestrians’ uncontested right, after all, to discipline and keep in check these wayward strangers who have foolishly strayed into their Big Apple!
So all you intrepid travelers, in a mood to take on the Big Apple, in the near or distant future, learn these lessons well, they will hold you in good stead. And, while you are here please don’t forget to stuff a few greenbacks into the alligator boots of the Naked Cowboy in Times Square!
© Pragya Thakur, February 2005