Seattle is the only city I know where pedestrians routinely launch themselves into traffic without looking both ways, or even one way. Heads held high, gazes fixed on some distant point ahead, they convey an aura of magical immunity: No car could possibly hit them, so long as they don’t acknowledge its existence by looking at it.
In every city, people on foot have their strategies for managing encounters with cars. When I lived in Chicago, I learned a war dance of fierce looks and gestures: It’s my right of way, goddamn it! In New York, walkers pride themselves on their skill at nimbly weaving through the gaps in traffic, rules be damned. In Cairo, I’ve seen pedestrians pounding with both fists on the hoods of cars nosing like sharks into the crosswalk.
But Seattle has a uniquely passive-aggressive solution to this universal problem. Instead of facing drivers or shouting at them, Seattle pedestrians terrorize drivers by looking the other way, placing their own lives in drivers’ hands. When I drive, as I have to confess I sometimes do, I’m afraid of pedestrians because at any moment any of them might punish me for generating planet-destroying emissions by forcing me to hit them with my car.
It’s clear in the casual contempt of walkers who refuse to dignify auto traffic with a glance: Jaywalking is an act of civil disobedience. A righteous 120-pound human is stronger than a 170-hp engine paralyzed by guilt. Soul force trumps the power of the combustion engine.
This is especially clear at four-way stops, where no one follows the rules printed in the instructional booklets from the Department of Licensing. You can tell when an out-of-towner is at the stop: they’re the ones who barely tap on the brakes before zooming through the intersection, out of turn. Seattleites don’t mind, because the sooner the lout is gone, the sooner those who remain can get down to the fascinating calculus of deciding who gets to determine the order of traffic movement.
A decision like this can’t be made by a bloodless rule. Deciding who goes when is a serious matter, a civic privilege awarded to whoever of those present has the most moral authority.
Walkers always have more moral authority than drivers. I keep forgetting this, which is why a man in Fremont almost had to punch me out one night. I was driving — again! — and was stopped at a stop sign, waiting for him to walk across the street, as he was entitled to do. It was his right of way.
But he didn’t want to walk. He wanted me to go first. He motioned to say so.
Mistaking this for a friendly gesture, I smiled and shook my head. I was happy to wait my turn. But he became annoyed, and motioned again with more emphasis.
Now I was irritated, but only because I was failing to appreciate my role in a complex social system of exchanges and compensations. My privilege, tolerated by him, was to have a quick (though ecocidal) way to get home in the rain. His privilege, which I was flagrantly violating, was to be the honorary king of the crosswalk, in recognition of the fact that he was sacrificing his comfort for the good of the planet.
The encounter escalated to threats; I drove home with a vivid memory of him shaking a fist at me and looming his way toward my window, which is how he finally convinced me to take his advice and go first.
When I’m on foot myself, I still prefer to act as if I were walking in Chicago or New York. I catch drivers’ eye before I step out in front of them. I look for gaps in traffic, and see jaywalking as a game of getting where I’m going without disrupting the flow. At intersections, though, I appreciate drivers who respect my right of way.
But when I’m in a car, I try to remember that I’m in Seattle. My car is an older Toyota Corolla, without hubcaps, so I have more moral authority than a shiny new SUV, but less than anyone on a bicycle or a scooter. And any pedestrian always rules us all. So when a stranger on the sidewalk gestures for me to run through a stop out of turn, I try to do so graciously, even when it defies common sense in a way that would earn jeers in New York.
And when I drive through pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Fremont, I do so with the fear of God in my heart. Like a gazelle at a watering hole, I strain my peripheral vision, alert to a threat that can come from any direction without warning. Please, O King of the Crosswalk, I pray, don’t make me hit you today.