sidewalks of new york

a field guide for taming the wild pedestrian

When I arrived in New York 25 years ago, there was a shared sense on the street that if you didn’t follow the rules you could get hurt.

Figuring out the correct side of the sidewalk and how to navigate taxis, bike messengers, and loose mental patients was part of survival in this tough City. It was also part of being a good fellow New Yorker. You felt proud of yourself as you accomplished the ways of the City. Similar to stepping confidently onto a “people mover” at the airport, you learned what “regular coffee” really meant at a street cart, how to fold your Times so as not to annoy fellow subway passengers, how brief a question needed to be for a New Yorker to answer it, and that you always stayed to the right and moved attentively on the sidewalk.

True New Yorkers knew these things. New New Yorkers wanted to learn them quickly. Visitors wanted to know so as not to draw attention to themselves. We were all in it together. And if you hadn’t figured that out yet, you quickly did, or risked being run off the curb.

But today, there is an epidemic of untamed pedestrians roving the sidewalks as if none of this was ever necessary. Whether they were raised without socialization, came to NYC fooled by the promise of a Lego or Disney store on every corner, or simply are disconnected from the real world by their digital devices, too many pedestrians have become stubborn obstacles on a maddening course, unaware of the danger they put themselves in, or the disruption they are to the City’s flow.

Who are these untamed pedestrians?

Surprisingly, the problem goes beyond the boundaries of age, gender, or ethnicity. But culprits do tend to be younger and appear to be from more entitled backgrounds, ones that allowed them to think primarily of themselves and less about cooperation, sharing, or not getting mugged.

Certainly none of them grew up with the hand of an Atticus Finch wresting gently on their shoulder and a firmly intoned, “Scout, you know the rules, stay to the right.” Nor, for that matter, did they have a Roseanne Conners swatting them on the back of the head and bellowing, “what’s wrong with you? Get out of those people’s way.”

Though not always, they are more often from the generation whose parents hovered over them endlessly, repeating “say ‘excuse me'” so consistently that these children never actually needed to say it for themselves (but nevertheless were rewarded with fruit rollups or Krispy Kremes at the other end of the block).

I’ve noticed that most of those who flaunt the rules also have no idea that they’re in the wrong, hollering an immature “excuse YOU”—with an unshakeable sense of personal righteousness—at people who don’t make it easy for them to walk wherever they wish. Like anti-vaccinators and creationists they shrug off science or necessity, and argue unwaveringly for their beliefs, no matter how dangerous or annoying they might be to everyone else.

I’m also surprised at how boldly these nitwits physically challenge oncoming strangers on the street. How do they know the person doesn’t have a knife, or a gun, or a violent temper and a personal goal of snapping the next millennial they encounter in half?

My partner Bob is a 6’3″ middle-age guy. You realize he’s a big teddybear the moment he speaks to you, but on first sight he can be scary. So I don’t understand the number of much smaller pedestrians who play chicken with him when he himself is walking on the correct side of the sidewalk.

But they do. They are so certain of their own rights to do as they please that they don’t see the danger of challenging a stranger who is twice their size.

I never would have thought that way when I first came to New York. The idea was to be wary, because anyone could be dangerous.

And in reality, that’s still true today.

But the newbies don’t realize it, and we seasoned New Yorkers aren’t doing our duty.

Using this field guide

Recent books and articles pointing to this epidemic have been written with the offending pedestrians as their audience. Brie DyasHuffington Post article on general daily rudenesses and Nathan Pyle‘s very insightfully written and cleverly illustrated NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette, are very earnest attempts to kindly alert the offenders to the proper behavior.

However, the current breed of untamed pedestrians are unfortunately too ubiquitous and deeply in need of some mass tougher love from the rest of us.

Therefore, we need to arm ourselves with insight, courage, and bold techniques, like the ones used by our predecessors in the generation of New Yorkers who enculturated us when we were newly arrived or deviant.

To the experienced New Yorker, these sidewalk greenhorns have nearly as many variations as species in the wild. I identify ten types below, each requiring a unique technique or “antidote” to their bad behavior, which I also provide.

You’ll notice I don’t suggest shoulder butts or mean retaliation. Rather each antidote is straightforward, safe, and assertive. And if that doesn’t work, a touch of humor and silliness will help to mildly disrupt their behavior, while you keep yourself calm and entertained.

So then, remember that, for this guide to work, you, my fellow seasoned and sensible New Yorkers, must continue to follow the rules of the sidewalk yourself, or you yourself will become just another annoying asshole on the street. Promise me, and yourself, that while using this guide, you’ll keep to the right, be aware of others, won’t take risks, and won’t hurt anyone.

At the same time, do, by all means, do be one of those New Yorkers who originally trained us: be straightforward, consistent, a little bit crazy or grumpy, but assertive enough to make them think twice about putting themselves in contact with the unpredictable strangers with whom they must share this City.

Ten Most Common Types of Untamed Pedestrians

1. Left-Lane Hugger

Their own left lane is theirs no matter how much traffic is coming at them. Their instinct is so much to the left, they will try to squeeze into the smallest sliver of space between the wall and the oncoming traffic, or crouch and crawl under a shrub at the curb to stay on the left side. It has nothing to do with which side the awning or the shop windows are on. They just gravitate to their own left instinctively and can’t redirect themselves otherwise. They may be living in New York at the moment, but in less than ten years they’ll be driving a minivan in the passing lane somewhere on I-70.

• Most common sightings: almost anywhere, clinging to the wall to your right.
• Antidote: sometimes a firm, but wordless, hand gesture toward your left is sufficient to change their course.
• If that doesn’t work: stay as far to your right as you can until there’s nowhere else for them to fit. 

2. Wired Terranaut

Wrapped in headphones, wires, backpack and other protective gear, eyes glued to the small screen in their hand, they travel the earth in a wired bubble, terranauts—earth travelers—unaware of their surroundings. We are mere space debris flying around them on their journey of singular purpose driven by the communications on the handheld divining device from which they do not look up or the soundtrack swelling in their ears to block out the world. Say “excuse me” as much as you like: in their space they do not hear your silent screams.

• Most common sightings: Lower East Side; NYU area; outside most high schools.
• Antidote: walk directly toward them clapping your hands and shouting, “heads up!”
• When you finally get their attention, it’s fun to watch them jump, but don’t expect them to recognize you as human.

3. Water Bug

In most humid climates, there are these insects that look like super-sized cockroaches called “water bugs.” Unlike their smaller urban cousins that scatter at the sight of human feet, water bugs run directly at you, as if their sonar has detected a giant play structure. It feels both random and purposeful all at once. Well, on the sidewalks of New York, there are humans that are like these water bugs, whose sonar—just as randomly—will latch on to you, an oncoming pedestrian, and propel them from any part of the sidewalk on a steady course toward you. It’s freaky as hell. It feels as if an inanimate object, like a hand truck or food cart, has broken loose and is wheeling out of control toward you in slow motion. It’s impossible to calibrate which way you yourself should move to get out of their way.

• Most common sighting: Chinatown; Canal Street; Port Authority; wherever it’s too late to do anything about it.
• Antidote: again, try waving your hand to your left, repeating in an even tone, “Look out. Look out.”
• If that doesn’t work: there’s not much more you can do than stop and let them veer off at the last second toward some other pedestrian.

4. BFFs (or Conjoined Twins)

Whether they are inseparable lovers, or those fragile Anime girlfriends that cling trepidatiously to one another against the world, these conjoined pairs appear to move unaware of any other pedestrians, much less traffic flow. The expectation is that their union is so significant that the rest of the traffic will find its way around them, no matter where they are on the sidewalk, or no matter how narrow the walkway becomes.

• Most common sightings: NYU area, Chinatown; that spot on the sidewalk ahead of you where the traffic appears to part like the Red Sea.
• Antidote: call out clearly, “Keep right. Rest of the world coming at ya’.”
• If that doesn’t work: when you’re a little more than arm’s length away from them, gesticulate broadly with your left hand and let out a quick short cough or bark. It wakes the lovers back into the real world and sends the Anime BFFs scurrying like pigeons.

5. Brat Pack

Groups of three, four, or more often assume that being in a pack of friends gives them permission to walk side-by-side regardless of who’s coming at them. They’re in group conversation. They’re sharing one big laugh. They’re the cast of Saint Elmo’s Fire or Sex in the City striking out into the world. And yeah, that guy on the outer edge of the group? He totally knows exactly what he’s up to. In fact they all do. Brush against him, and someone on the other side of the pack will call you an asshole.

• Most common sitings: NYU area; Upper West Side; whenever you yourself are in a hurry to get somewhere.
• Antidote: if you are walking with someone, take his or her arm, stay to the right, and walk with purpose.
• If you don’t think that will work: stop abruptly in their way to look at a store window or speak seriously to the person you’re walking with. Make it seem random or absentminded. It’s not confrontational, so they won’t know what to do with you.

6. Sidewalk Princess

Behind Gucci sunglasses, she strides straight down the middle of the sidewalk, her arms like chicken wings splayed out as hooks for a multitude of shopping bags, a cell phone cupped upward in one hand and the other raised as if to dry her nails or cradle an ornamental dog. If one of her bags grazes you, she will expect you to apologize to it.

• Most common sitings: 5th Avenue; SOHO; the seafood aisle in Dean and DeLuca.
• Antidote: if you are carrying a newspaper or umbrella, when you are still about ten feet away, use the object to gesture once toward her and then point to your left.
• Or more likely, since very little you can do will matter, just hold your ground on your right and let the bags rattle as they may.

7. Cock of the Walk

His frat days may be over. His MBA may have only landed him a job at the firm next door to the firm next door to the firm of his dreams. But during “happy hour” and on weekends he’s still the cock of the walk, the big man on campus, at least in his own imagination. He takes the middle of the sidewalk on Saturdays in calve-length board shorts and flip flops, behind sunglasses and a baseball cap as if he’s a celebrity, striding as if his balls are too big for his thighs. He often carries a drink (Starbucks? Brown-bag concealed beer?) and accompanies the Sidewalk Princess listed above.

• Most common sightings: 1st Avenue between 48th and 59th Streets; Murray Hill; the Financial District; outside sports bars.
• Antidote: this is another good one for a newspaper or umbrella gesture, or simply calling out, “Keep right. Share the sidewalk.”
• Or better yet, walk toward him pretending you recognize him from work or business school days, and then suddenly lose all expression and walk right past him at the last minute.

8. Bulldozer Mom

Whether plowing through pedestrians with a split-level stroller wider than the sidewalk itself, or indulging her toddler’s desire for a special learning moment with the subway staircase during rush hour, she fully intends to take, and I mean take, the village to raise her child. Try to challenge her in any way and you’re dead meat, buster. She is rearing something very important here, and the rest of us are just extensions of the nanny staff. Her child will need to learn boundaries, sharing, and manners from someone else, because right now she’s late for a Mommy-and-Me spinning class, and we’re just not making it easy for her.

• Most common sightings: West Village; Upper West 80s or Upper East 90s; Park Slope; at the bottom of the escalators at Whole Foods.
• Antidote: call out, “manners start early. Teach your baby to share the sidewalk.”
• Or better yet, stop, as though you’re really interested in her and her child, hand her a business card for an early childhood behavioral therapist, and murmur, “make sure you attend the session, too.”

9. Leash Lasso

He’s on his cell phone at the curb. His dog’s three doors down sniffing a poop smear on the sidewalk. The only thing they seem to have in common is twenty retractable feet of leash stretched diagonally across everyone else’s foot path. He sees you coming, but, like, um, he’s busy, dude. You can find your own way around his dog, right?

• Most common sightings: Chelsea, NoLita, Murray Hill, or next to most any fire hydrant.
• Antidote: call out, “Mind your dog. Clear the sidewalk.”
• If that doesn’t work: though I’m tempted to suggest giant clippers, it’s best to just stop in front of the dog or the leash, and holler, “DUDE!”

10. Omaha Steaks

They’re big. They’re pink. They’re a whole family of rump and skirt steaks, stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk looking up. They came here to see Wicked and eat cupcakes from Magnolia. Everything else is kind of confounding to them, leaving their brains to short-out in the middle of traffic, or sending them searching for the nearest Olive Garden or Dallas BBQ for safety. Recent initiatives to make tourists feel safer in NYC has made them less wary of the natives, and therefore, less prone to learn the ways of the City. So, they’re dumbfounded when it doesn’t work the way it does back home.

• Most common sightings: Theater District, Little Italy, World Trade Center, Rockefeller Center, or just on the other side of the subway turnstile that you need to pass through.
• Antidote: I’m more forgiving of tourists, but they need to learn quickly that they have a lot to learn. Gently tell them to move out the way and keep right.
• Or better yet, carry copies of Pyle’s NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette to hand out to them.

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