Somewhere over the rainbow, people stroll

Marina Times - Enter Stage Left: A New Coast
By Evalyn Baron
October 2011

One thing I disliked about New York City was its frantic pace. As the most densely populated city in the United States – not counting the busses, subways, cars, animals, rats, and egos that come with those crowds – NYC has over 8 million humans hitting the ground running day and night. True, some of them hit the ground and just lay there, but that doesn’t stop other New Yorkers from pole vaulting over them and racing on. I’ve seen it happen. Sadly, I’ve done it myself.

NYC is a film on fast forward. Sometimes my frame would freeze and I’d observe others scurrying so insanely I’d laugh out loud, and that’s when people glanced at me, thinking, “Oops, better rush by her, she’s one of the crazies. Quick, before she announces the aliens have landed.” It was when Peter and I realized that the aliens had landed that we moved west. New Yorkers skittering their lives away began to look very strange to us, and their “dancing as fast as we can” culture no longer enthralled us. It only made us tired.

But walking in San Francisco is not a battle drill. It’s a way of getting where you want to go. Sanely. It could be the hills, but I’ve even noticed “strolling” on flat ground, even in midtown, where tourists and business people have a pacific take on getting somewhere: a West Coast waltz, which I much prefer to East Coast jitterbugging.

There’s little grace in frantic speed.

Despite San Francisco also being a major city, squeezing some 800,000 people into a mere 46.9 square miles, there’s still a feeling of “village” here, due to the way people ambulate. San Francisco’s pedestrians carry themselves with an air of relaxed, fearless privilege, as if S.F. is their village. No matter what color the traffic lights, no matter how many cars are waiting for them, S.F. pedestrians take it all in stride, and that stride is a self-possessed, relaxed one. It’s so calming.

People here walk when and as they wish, glancing at the waiting cars as if to say, “Don’t you dare honk! This is my village. What are cars doing here? Get out and walk! It’s better for the heart and the environment!” Proceeding as if the roadways were made of soft, dusty dirt, not city concrete, they walk as if it is their natural right. And despite my hardwired NYC need for speed, I now see how life can be and I like it a lot. I feel like Neo being unhooked from the Matrix, seeing reality for the first time. My eyes are open.

The S.F. passagiatta includes beautiful young women, replete with smart phones and iPods, barely aware of where they are much less that they’re walking against red lights, strolling laconically past stop signs with cars straining to leap forward and crush them. Often they disregard the crosswalks and simply amble where they wish, walking in befuddling patterns, cutting corners against all reason (one can only hope that at least they know where they’re going). Family groupings with baby carriages come from dinner, moving slowly like tribes of wild turkeys, gobbling, chatting, spilling over sidewalks, past lights long turned against them. Handsome young men with pals joke and laugh as they mosey, treating crosswalks like their university quads on a party weekend, oblivious to all else. Endless lines of quitting-time stragglers really hold my interest because just when you think you can make that turn at Columbus or Broadway, they keep streaming into your path, making the turn impossible until the light turns against you.

And finally, there are the marvelous elderly, whose determined feet shuffle slowly across the prairie of each crosswalk. Bent over, they have no idea that the light is yellow, only that when they started out it was green. They also know they’re safe because San Francisco is their home. I love these older folks, and I’m glad there are so many out walking. Surely there are elderly pedestrians on NYC sidewalks, but I rarely saw them. When I did, they were usually in wheelchairs being pushed by nurses hired by their Long Island sons or daughters, and they were moving rapidly because NYC traffic is not kind to people who dawdle, no matter what they’re pushing.

New York City is no place to grow old.

So I plan to do that right here, in this gorgeous city of watery light and magic. I will amble my way into the sunset, the latest rock band plugged in as I shuffle along. If you see me bent over, a contented smile on my wrinkled face, be very glad for this village we live in.

Then take me gently by the shoulders and point me in the right direction. I will have my address pinned to my sleeve.