The Pedestrian’s Tale

The following is offered as a response to the culture of victim blaming that has lately been ascendant.

Like The Canterbury Tales, it is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic shares a root with words like amble and ambulatory, and each set of two syllables (an off-beat and an on-beat) is called a foot. The style of verse where sentences flow freely between lines rather than rigidly beginning and ending with them is called running rhyme. So fundamental is walking to humanity that it permeates every aspect of our language and literature.

The Pedestrian’s Tale

In November, when the rains arrive
To paint the sky black for the evening drive,
Thus rendering every windshield, front or rear,
As useless as the blunt end of a spear—
It’s here, under this dark, exciting veil
That you will find the setting for my tale,
One every bit as seedy and as crass
As the Miller’s, or the Wife of Bath’s.
Perhaps you’ve heard rumors of my misdeeds
So wild you took them for hyperbole,
But I confess, they’re all true and then some!
Everything they say I do, I’ve done.

Take, for example, the much ballyhooed
Red hand: Well, rest assured my sins include
The contravention of the bad advice
Dispensed by this wretched damned device.
Can you imagine anything so slow?
Stopping every hundred steps or so,
Standing still until the lonely seconds
When the ‘walk’ sign finally deigns to beckon?
It’s obvious even to a simple jay
That nobody will ever walk this way.

Another bit of scuttlebutt that’s true?
I love a smoothly-made cocktail or two.
A happy hour Manhattan to me
Is bliss—and best enjoyed with company
At a good bar, where strangers become friends.
And when our rowdy celebration ends
I depart the way I always do:
By the power of the leather on my shoe.
Of course I walk—what else would you suggest?
That I commit to totaling tea unless
I Uber home? If so, my cause is lost;
I can’t afford a cab with what drinks cost.

The humble emprise of wandering around
Beholding all the city’s sights and sounds
Is one of life’s true pleasures in my eyes.
I’m sure, then, you’ll imagine my surprise
To learn it’s bad to walk “distracted” now.
Who decided this? And when? And how?
We walk upright, and so our paws are free
To handle other feats as we mosey.
The city offers many choices there;
My favorite one is noshing on the fare
That’s sold streetside. Street food is always great,
As much for the scenery as the taste.

Of course, to me no walk would be complete
Without some Built to Spill to keep the beat;
Belting out that filthy lead guitar
Is the smartest thing my dumb phone does, by far.
The tech is new, but not my ringing ears;
I rocked those guys on my Walkman for years.

See, none of my transgressions are high crimes.
Good folks have walked this way since Chaucer’s time!
So when and why did I become a mark?
Is it because I do it in the dark?

But don’t these black threads fit my frame so well?
I’m ten pounds overweight and you can’t tell.
The nicest clothes don’t even come in brights,
Yet, believe me, I’m seen just fine at night
By anyone who’s moving good and slow.
And that’s the problem. For, as everyone knows,
There’s a road user too spoiled, too odious
To be slowed: My nemesis, the motorist!

The motorist slithers through the city streets,
His fanny firmly fixed to his front seat,
Casting his judgement from inside the glass
And metal box he wears. He moves as fast
As the street’s design allows. Neither laws,
Nor common sense, nor kindness give him pause.

I’ll credit him for being resolute:
The motorist’s demands are absolute
And he will never compromise. And I?
I dared to slow him down by walking by.
Because of this, as you can plainly see,
Well, I’ve been branded with this awful ‘P.’

This new code by which I must abide
Has broken my spirit, but not my stride,
And so I walk, sober, focused, shining,
My head hung low. With every step I’m pining
For a world without cars, for I’m no fool—
I know my safety’s not behind these rules.
The object is to minimize delay
To the motorist; indeed this is the way
That all important design decisions
Are made. Thus, with a surgeon’s precision,
Any crosswalk that his disfavor finds
Is blotted out, with walking banned by sign.
And on and on it goes. My sidewalks too
Are attacked from the flanks by you know who.
You see, when he’s not screaming through the dark,
The motorist will need a place to park.

And you, my friends who engineer and plan:
So much of this is squarely in your hands.
You’ve got high-minded policies and goals,
But on the streets a different tale is told.
We all know how the motorist moans and whines,
But the time has come to grow a little spine.
If Vision Zero’s more than just a saying,
Well, we won’t get there through victim-blaming.
We know what we must do: Slow down the cars!
Design works best, but it would warm my heart
If just one PSA would ask as much
Instead of all the victim blamey stuff.

For now, alas, the expectation’s clear:
Safety’s burden is mine alone to bear,
And so although it breaks the heart to see,
I’ll be out walking in my ugly ‘P.’