Competitive Crossing

I never knew street-crossing could be a competitive sport. And not just in a me vs. you sense. Or even a me vs. everyone else sense. It’s you and me vs. everyone else, plus all the vehicles and bicyclists. Your head can never be on too much of a swivel.

I pride myself on how fast I walk. When I lived in Maryland, I was the fastest walker in the whole mid-Atlantic. Everywhere I went, I cruised past people on the sidewalk like they were standing still. Window shopping, perhaps. Or enjoying a cup of coffee. Or maybe just scolding a young child for not tying his shoe. I could never tell, because to me, they were a blur.

Not here, though. Not in the City the Never Saunters. This is the big leagues, and if anyone is scolding their kid on the sidewalk for something as trivial as an untied shoe, well, they’re going to have much bigger problems in about 2.1 seconds when I plow them over without even noticing — accidentally, of course — on my way to the next crosswalk.

I wouldn’t notice not only because I’m in the zone over here, but also because I’m probably texting and/or in the middle of a phone call. This doesn’t make me ignorant; it makes me one of “us.” And we know how to cross the street.

My favorite and also least favorite scenario is the one in which I’m not only walking toward my destination, but on the opposite side of the street. So yeah, you might be headed south on 6th Avenue to stop by the GNC at 15th Street and pick up some protein powder — and maybe some fish oil because it’s on sale, but probably just the powder and some bars because that feels safe and they work — but if you’re on the east side of 6th Avenue, well, you’re going to have to make a right at some point because the General Nutrition Center is to the west.

So you’re bee-lining it south like any self-respecting speedwalker, until inevitably, if the walk is long enough, and let’s face it, it is, because we walk everywhere we don’t have to take a subway — you approach a firm orange hand, probably an orange mitten over a hand to be exact, since you can’t distinguish any fingers, telling you it’s not okay to cross the street. Unless… UNLESS there aren’t any cars or bicycles crossing perpindicular to my path in either direction.

This assessment is a simple one to make when said perpendicular street is one-way, because you only have to look one way in order to safely cross, unless of course someone is driving or riding the wrong way, which is a whole other issue altogether, and since this isn’t Cleveland or Los Angeles, you’re probably fine. If it’s a two-way street, that makes things more complicated, and I don’t need to reemphasize the importance of a well-swiveled cranium in this scenario.

Now if the crossing street has traffic coming from both directions and there are multiple lanes, well, you might as well pull out your favorite iPhone app and kill some time, because waiting 30 seconds for the light to change pretty much feels like an eternity. Or… OR you could take advantage of our I’m-on-the-east-side-of-6th-Ave-but-GNC-is-on-the-west scenario and make a quick right across Avenue of the Americas to find yourself on a line as straight as the street itself en route to all the health supplements for which you could ever hope.

But remember, you can only do this once. Heretofore you were a regular Robert Frost — you had two paths in front of you at each intersection. Now, though, you have but one, and it’s due south. (Whether it’s less-traveled is irrelevant.) So make sure the intersection on which you use your crossing is the one that will save you the most time. And also the one that will help you pass that poorly dressed guy in the Mets hat who you swear jumped in front if you at the subway turnstile exit just so he could slow you up on the stairs only to walk ahead of you on the street for the last eight blocks even though there’s no way he’s going to GNC because, well, look at the guy. And now’s your chance to bury him if you cross wisely. And of course you do.

You exhaust your street-crossing option here, heading directly toward the white silhouette light signal four lanes over, welcoming you to the other side of the street, where it happens to be a little cooler, a little more in the shade, because it’s Thursday afternoon and the sun has begun to set and you could use an environment that’s a few degrees less steamy what with all this competitive walking.

If you time it right — you do, because you’re a pro — before you even reach that other sidewalk, the orange mitten has returned — a different one, of course — but right now it’s just flashing, which in most places means, “Don’t cross now, it’s almost unsafe,” but in New York means, “If you’re in the middle of the intersection, your timing is perfect. And if you’re still 10 feet from the intersection, it’s still OK to cross. Even if you’re pushing two babies in a dual stroller — one of which is too big to be pushed, but no one’s told you — and the second that flashing mitten is a solid S-T-O-P signal, you’ll only be halfway across 6th Avenue, which is a perfect place to block two lanes of cabbies who are only obeying the green light ahead of them by trying to pull forward, but can’t because you’re in the way, so they all beep, and your kid that’s too big for the stroller is sitting on the left side, so he will probably incur short-term hearing loss, but you don’t care, because you suck at crossing the street. And you’re a terrible parent.

But that was her. This is you. And you, suddenly, conveniently, are just two blocks from GNC. And since the orange mitten was flashing while you were already in the intersection, by the time you get across, that left-hand turn you need to make will be primed by another well-lit white man who says it’s OK to cross and if anyone hits you you’ll get a lot of money, so long as you’re between the pedestrian lines. And it was and you are, and suddenly you have just one more intersection to cross before you reach your destination.

As soon as you conquer 16th Street, you see the walking signal at 15th is a Go, which is actually a bad thing because by the time you get there, Go will turn to No. And you aren’t going to run just to make it because first of all this is a walking competition and no one cheats — it’s not Olympics speed-walking for Heaven’s sake, this is the real deal — and also because you forgot to put on deodarant this morning and if your body temperature rises one more degree, you’ll be stopping at Duane Reed for some Old Spice.

Your instincts were right, as usual, and by the time you reach 15th Street, the firm orange mitten awaits you. It’s a one-way street, though. And even though it’s rush hour, this hurdle-to-others is a mere blip on your radar. You don’t stand on the sidewalk — you head right for the street. Practically the middle of the street. Not because you’re a badass — though you are — but because you know exactly how much room that sliding-door-SUV cab driver and the box truck behind him need to fit between you and the hombre across the street who’s in a competition of his own. (Not one with you of course, because he would lose. Plus he’s walking the opposite direction.)

And as soon as that box truck passes — there was never a doubt it would fit, because the driver’s a pro, you’re a pro, everyone’s a pro — you stride ahead, clearing the box-truck-trailing Mercedes by a good two seconds, and the woman driving that whip knew not to slow down either, because you were going to get out of the way in plenty of time.

Once that’s done, you’re practically there. Actually, you really are there, because GNC is on the corner of 15th and 6th, so, yeah, that’s convenient. The Walking doesn’t stop once you’re inside, though. You know just where to look for the cookies-and-cream flavor of your favorite powder, and the secret stash where the bulk-discount protein bars reside on the bottom shelf. One tub of powder, two boxes of bars, and you’re ready to check out. A little extra weight under each arm doesn’t stop you from beating the scrawny guy in the tank top to the cash register.

As a reward, you help yourself to a free calcium-chew sample. Caramel, of course, because the chocolate ones taste like Ovaltine-injected chalk. Do you have your Gold Card? the cashier asks. (His name tag says Ryan.) Yes I do. It’s right…hmm. Wallet’s not in your right pocket, per usual. Scrawny tank-top guy is getting impatient, and Ryan just wants to close the sale. Must be in the…right pocket of my jacket, which is at my office. On 27th Street. Dammit! You thank Ryan, pointlessly, head through the door, and begin walking north. A new mitten immediately awaits. The good news is, you’re on the west side of the street. And somewhere up ahead, your office is on the east.