Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On a pedestrian's agonies

Even though I do have a driver’s license, I don’t have a car. At home I rarely need to drive (and even more seldom do I want to). Therefore, to make absolutely sure I wouldn’t have to drive in the US, I left my license at home. Of which I am happy. However – and I knew this before I left – it can be a pain to not have a car in the US. (I sense a lot of rolling eyes.) Because when you don’t have a car, you’re either left to explore whatever public transportation your area can offer (and it isn’t always a given that there is any), or, you’re stuck with what you were born with: your legs.

So I walk. I walk to the metro station, I walk to the grocery shop, and I walk to the ruddy archive. I like to walk. It is my transportation of preference at home too. But the experience of walking is slightly different here than at home. As long as you’re in the city, you’re fine. D.C. is a pedestrian’s city in many respects (one-way streets, parking challenges and an easily navigatable metro system being excellent reasons for leaving your car at home). It’s when you stray out of city limits you face the real problems.

First of all – the roads are so much bigger than at home (I’ve yet to see one that in Norway wouldn’t be defined as “highway”...), and everything is adjusted to the driver’s need, not the pedestrians’. Pedestrian crossings are few, they are only occasionally regulated by lights, and if so, these lights only stop traffic for a few seconds. I walk relatively fast, but more than once I’ve found it difficult to cross the street on time. I wonder how an old lady with a cane would manage?

Secondly, when walking you’re free game. It appears that the drivers consider me part of the roadside entertainment. At home, I have never, ever, been honked at. Ever. Here, it appears that is common. Am I wearing a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you’re horny?” No! And yes, I did notice that you checked my “bumper” just to make sure… I don’t know if it is my striking beauty and obvious charm, but I have a feeling that it’s not. Just because I’m there, walking, doesn’t mean you have to eat me up with your eyes!

Some don’t even stop there. Again, at home I have never been randomly offered a ride from a stranger (unless you count the time I was eight... It sounds worse than it is. Long story...)*. Here, it happened three times during my first month. How stupid do they think I am? I might be blond and blue-eyed, I might look (and be) naïve, but seriously – I don’t accept rides from strangers! I could have been walking with broken legs and a concussion, and I would still have turned down the offer to take a ride from a stranger. (Call it Norwegian tight-assedness, call it healthy scepticism, call it a principle. Not gonna affect my firm belief that I am safer sticking to it as a rule.)

Finally, (and I realize this isn’t a U.S. thing – this is more a me-thing,) when you’re walking carrying your camera (which I have been doing a lot – my camera having been my tool of choice for my archive work, and when I’ve been touristing about I also brought it along), you stand at risk of creating the strangest situations. I have mentioned some already (my SWAT encounter, my near-death tree photographic episode and of course the squirrels, the show-offs). But in addition, let me tell you a little story. This happened about a month ago, when I was, as usual, walking home from the archive. It was a beautiful day – the sun was about to set, but it was still light out. Suddenly I saw a big bird sitting at the top of a building. It looked an awful lot like an owl, but since it was daytime, I doubted this could be it. Cautiously, I approached it, camera ready. When I got close enough to see that, yes, it definitely was an owl, I snapped a shot just to make sure I had this documented. As the bird did not appear to be scared at all, however, I went even closer to get a better shot.

This was when I realized why it didn’t move. It was made of plastic.

Needless to say, I put my camera back in my bag and left quite quickly. The owl, I believe, is still there.

* Just because I know someone or other is bound to ask... When I was eight years old, I was accidentally abducted by a misguided bureaucrat. This was May 17th (Norway’s Constitutional Day, in case you haven’t been at the receiving end of my propagandic raving about it before), and a TV-team wanted an interview with the little girl who had held the traditional speech at City Hall (yes, I held speeches at age eight. Don’t even get me started at my career in public speaking. That definitely merits a post of its own sometime...). My kidnapper, who worked for the local municipality, was just doing his job, but he chose a very bad way of doing it. He basically tracked me down in the children’s parade, told me I would get to be on TV if I came with him, and since I was eight and didn’t know better, I did. When my teacher turned around to find me gone, she asked my classmates what had happened. I am fairly sure the reply “she went with a man in a car” didn’t make her feel too happy, but apart from the simultaneous near-heart attacks of her, my mom and my dad, nothing bad happened that day. I have, however, learned better since.


Watery Tart said...

BUWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I LOVE your plastic owl story! That is something I would do, if I ever carried a camera... and not carrying one, I would at least try to feed the darned thing.

As a fellow pedestrian, I sympathize with the limitations, but i will probably always wear a bumper sticker that says 'My other car is a pair of Reeboks'

M.J. Nicholls said...

Hail to the plastic owls. I'm starting my own website:

You CAN get T-shirts that read: "Don't Bother Honking Since I'm Not Your Type" and so on, but most drivers can't read small fonts on a crinkled undershirt from a distance, so they're a ripoff. And unfunny. Only in America.

Great post!

Word ver: belumer
Word ver #2: woodly

Cruella Collett said...

*snort* That's a GREAT bumper sticker, Tami!

And yes, T-shirts are a thing here. The other day I saw an entire store completely devoted to Obama ones. BIG store!

J. M. Hunter said...

That plastic owl story is great! I literally laughed out loud. We have them standing guard on the fifth floor of the building I work on. It took me weeks to realize they weren't real owls perched at freakishly perfect intervals along the roofline.

I get what you're saying about traveling by foot. The southern USA, with a few exceptions generally sucks for pedestrians, as most of it is suburban or victimized by urban sprawl. Nothing is very convenient. I happen to live in one of the few pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, but it was built in the 1910 - 1920 era. The ones from the 1940s onward were built with automobility in mind - everyone was going somewhere, fast, in a car.

Where I grew up in the country, if someone was walking down the road, then you would know with almost 100% certainty that their mode of transportation had broken down and they needed a ride. It was considered bad manners to pass them by without offering a ride. However, I can also say with 100% certainty that, despite the many, many times I ran out of gas on the side of said country lanes, I never once accepted a ride from a stranger, though a steady line of them would stop to offer. I sat in my car on the side of the road and eventually my dad or some other relative would mosey on home and pass me by, turn around, and get me. It seems crazy now that I'm 30ish that I was driving at 14 and didn't even really understand how to pump my own gas! I think they're upping the driving age to 17 now. That's a good thing!

Cruella Collett said...

J.M. - in the case of one of the cars that stopped I suspect that the driver's intentions were honest - he looked like he genuinely was worried about me walking along the road, probably lost, and he did look like he offered just the ride. Unfortunately, that is not a risk I am willing to take, so I will never find out whether he was sincere or not.

The other two, however, were more obvious in their intentions. One of them actually used the words "free ride" while wriggling his eyebrows. Pretty creepy (and more than a little pathetic)...

It amazes me that you could drive at 14! (And I agree that upping the age limit, to at least 17, sounds like a good idea - frankly, I kinda wish kids had to take a maturity test before they were given a driver's license - some of them just shouldn't be trusted with a car!) It is pretty funny, though, that you had to sit and wait for your family to pick you up and yet it didn't occur to anyone to teach you the principle of pumping gas...

J. M. Hunter said...

Believe me, they tried! The rockin' 1980s station wagon they gave me to drive had a broken gas meter, which was bad enough, but then the filling station up the road installed one of them there new fangledy electronic gas pumps, and I couldn't ever figure out how to use it... sad but true

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