This Jaybird You Can’t Change

legsMichelle RickFree as a bird (not the article’s author).

I am an educated person who can read and write. I can also see perfectly well. I should know, therefore, that when there is a giant red hand flashing at me from across the street, I should probably stay on the curb instead of walking out into the oncoming traffic. But I don’t remember learning as a child that crossing the street only when the white symbol for walking-human was illuminated was essential to societal orderliness. I was always just told to hold hands.

Lacking this educational background, I convinced myself that if a car was to hit me, the driver would have to pay me several thousand dollars in some sort of law suit and I could go back to my life of walking into oncoming traffic again, except I’d be richer. I’m in no position to turn down free money. “Bring it on cars!” I would say as they honked their useless horns and I tiptoed across the asphalt. “Try and hit me, I’ll see you in court!” They would slow down, like cowards, or slam on their breaks, also like cowards. They would climb out their windows and tell me I’m crazy and that I must have a death wish. No, I just knew that the alternative to getting to the other side of the street when I wanted meant either free money or death. And if I died, then I wouldn’t really know the difference would I?

This attitude allowed me to get a lot done while crossing intersections. I could time myself on a mile walk, uninterrupted. I could eat the falafel I just bought. I could make calls to my grandmother. I saw the stretch of open asphalt as a vast field of opportunity. What could I get done from point A to point B? Could I finish this container of pasta salad? Could I paint my nails this shade of electric blue? Could I keep knitting this scarf? Of course I could.

I saw people waiting at the sidewalk like fools. “Don’t you know?” I would say, “they can’t hit you, because then they’ll owe you money.” They nodded, and we held hands and walked across the avenues together while I showed them pictures of my various newborn baby cousins.

It’s impossible to know if I started this trend or if others just caught on, but pretty soon after I moved here I noticed that almost everyone in New York was doing what I was doing. By the masses, people would cross busy intersections even if there was a blinking red light in the shape of a hand on the other side of the street.

No one cares about those silly chirping voices telling you that you have a time limit to cross. No one wants to hear they have a time limit when they’re in a hurry. No one cares about sixteen bright beams inching toward them on a major highway stretch. We can outrun them anyway! And certainly, no one cares about any intersections in the East Village. That was where non-crosswalk-waiters could be free and practice their trade for the real world. Perhaps living in this neighborhood of ignored street lights has spoiled me even further.

On a drizzly day in March, I left my fair neighborhood for work in Dumbo. I was minding my own business and doing my taxes while I crossed cobbled York Street, when I heard a strange whirring sound that I’d previously only heard from my window and in rap songs. I looked down the road and saw a small, hybrid vehicle painted in blue and white barreling toward me. What a strange horn, I thought. I kept walking but courteously held up my hand and did my usual mouthing of the word “sorry.”

“Pull over” a voice from the car said over a loud speaker. I was confused. Did they think I was a car? I didn’t look like a car. Did I look like a car? I was wearing a lot of metal that day. “Get on the sidewalk” the voice said. The blue and white hybrid car pulled up next to me. I noticed it was painted to look like a police car, but due to the fact that hybrid cars were invented to ease our fears and have a rotund, soft aesthetic that symbolizes that comfort, I didn’t think an actual cop would come out of the car.

She emerged, all five foot four of her. She was young and looked like Jennifer Lopez playing a cop, which I found cool since this was the first New York cop I’d met. I wondered if she wanted me to do her taxes and that’s why she’d stopped me.

“The red hand means don’t walk,” She said. “Oh! I’m sorry,” I said. I twirled my umbrella and started to walk away. “Hold up,” she said, “You’re getting a ticket for unsafe crossing at an intersection.” I became confused. Perhaps she was joking. Perhaps she wasn’t actually a cop and it was my birthday or early bachelorette party. “Jaywalking.” She said. “I’m giving you a ticket for jaywalking.”

She took a pen to a pad of pink paper and began to write. Behind her, approximately 25 people crossed the street while that red hand hand was stagnantly lit on the crossing signal that had been my downfall. Whose hand was that modeled after anyway? He or she could certainly never play piano. I wanted to scream at my comrades that had once held my hand, “She’s giving me a jaywalking ticket! Do something!”

The passersby looked at me with pity. They probably thought I was a drug dealer, and were confused as to why a drug dealer had such beautiful electric blue nails. They also may have thought I was a prostitute.

I pulled myself together. “Come on, “ I pleaded. “Jaywalking? Really? This is New York City.” I threw my hand out toward the glistening water of the East River, referencing the millions and millions of laws passed to make the city better for pedestrians, and the millions and millions of people there are compared to streetlights and cars. I wanted to prepare a Powerpoint presentation to show that I cannot properly function as a human in a city that is made of built up walls and needed to exercise my animalistic behaviors of needing to run free.

She didn’t even blink. “Sorry,” she said, “This is Brooklyn.”

Now that I wait on corners, I notice a lot more. The people here dress really crazy, and there are some cute dogs. People aren’t afraid to cry on the phone when they’re walking down the street. There’s always a different poster advertising the same guitar lessons pasted to the light post at the intersection by my apartment. It smells good on that corner too. My jaywalking ticket taught me to stop and smell the falafel. That lesson, by the way, is $25 by check or online payment.