The other day I emerged from my garage to a street scene filled with fire trucks, police cars, and emergency vehicles combined with barricades from the gas company and several trucks from an environmental management company. Someone with good sense might take all that in and retreat back into the reinforced concrete security of the parking garage. No, I saw enough of a crowd to venture forward. I wanted to know what was going on. The local bank manager, normally a jovial guy, was in the midst of it all. I asked, “Did something explode?” He looked confused so I pointed to the utility trucks.
“Oh that. No.” He was very somber. “That’s not related,” he said gesturing to the other part of the scene. We watched a young woman being hoisted onto a nearby stretcher. “Someone got run over by a car.”
When new to Chicago, I was surprised to find that at the end of my block, so close to the downtown financial district, only a stop sign managed the traffic. In addition to the converted lofts that make up much of my neighborhood, there are townhomes and single family homes. For being in the shadow of the Sears tower, it has a suburbian feel to it, yet the traffic reminds us where we really live. Through this intersection, folks coming from the 'burbs race to work. They gun the lights and often slam to a stop in the middle of the crosswalk.
My daughter had just turned one when we moved here from Brooklyn five years ago. I spent my days pushing her in a stroller, walking the city, learning it with my feet - discovering playgrounds, parks, music and art. If I crossed the intersection at the end of my block and a car passed the line, I would explode into hand jestures and curses – practiced from 15 years as a pedestrian through the streets of New York. Drivers would drop their jaw, not really sure what to make of my insults. People on the street would stop and stare. Not at the careless motorists, but at the crazy, cursing lady pushing a stroller. They were staring at me.
It wasn’t peer pressure from these polite Midwesterners that encouraged me to change my behavior. It was the day when I looked down to see my sweet little girl shaking her fist furiously at a car, ranting and cursing in her baby talk translation that I realized I ought to stop. My street survival tendencies weren’t welcome in this nice part of the world. It was unseemly, unattractive, and now my kid was doing it, too.
I changed. Instead of curses, I gave curt smiles. I taught my daughter to treat strangers with respect and courtesy – learning this myself as I tried to be a stellar example. This was my neighborhood and I wanted to be accepted as a friend, not fiend.
Eventually the stop sign was replaced by a traffic light. It was supposed to be temporary while nearby construction would divert the extra traffic through the area. After two years, the light remains. Traffic speeds by, racing the light. Neighbors with their dogs, their strollers, their briefcases, cower on the curb as they await permission to cross. We are terrorized by reckless drivers. Our Alderman has asked the community whether the light should stay or go.
Today, after watching the unfortunate pedestrian being taken away, I turned to walk home. How small my city neighborhood feels – when people on the streets are saddened when a stranger is hurt. I pressed the walk button, the light changed and I stepped off the curb. A taxi screeched to a halt, stopping in the middle of the crosswalk. I shook my fist and fired off a few curses, “Hey! This is a crosswalk, ASSHOLE.”
The driver laughed as he rolled down his window to blow me kisses. “Come on, honey, I just wanted to give you some love.” He inched his car forward to tease. I gave him the finger and cursed some more while he laughed behind me. Safe on the curb, I looked around me to find stares – not at the crazy cabbie, but at me, the crazy lady shaking her fists in the streets.