General Articles

THE LAST PEDESTRIAN

Is there still room in the world of machines for a man who uses his legs? Only if he is swift and cunning

JOHN CLARE April 15 1948
General Articles

THE LAST PEDESTRIAN

Is there still room in the world of machines for a man who uses his legs? Only if he is swift and cunning

JOHN CLARE April 15 1948

THE LAST PEDESTRIAN

JOHN CLARE

Is there still room in the world of machines for a man who uses his legs? Only if he is swift and cunning

A MAN I knew called Henry Blodgett often had the feeling that he was the last pedestrian. He found no solace for his loneliness in observing the crowded sidewalks. Most of the people in those crowds were obviously part-time practitioners and not real pedestrians at all. He put mental tick marks against them as they passed, everyone a familiar and vaguely unhappy type to him. There was the motorist, his eyes clouded with thoughts of a parking ticket; the slightly crushed streetcar customer trying to pull herself into shape before making an entrance at the office and the wild wondrous look of the commuter, slightly winded by his canter from the station and amazed that he had once again met the harsh schedule of his existence.

“No, there aren’t many of us left. Perhaps I am the last,” Henry would invariably conclude after a swift and expert scrutiny of a street scene. He permitted himself to draw no more than decent pride from his conclusion, for Henry was not, a vain man. He was, in fact, a humble person with a look of sadness in his quick wary eyes. One day after an old Willys with a surprising burst of early foot almost cut him down at an intersection Henry observed to a man who was passing, “I think 1 know exactly how the last wood pigeon felt.”

One of Henry’s odd fancies was his idea that vehicles have a personality and an intelligence independent of the people who drive them. He thought of panel delivery trucks as sleek-haired young men trying to get ahead in the world and not caring too much how they got there; the big black cars, the limousine type, with long flowing lines appeared to Henry as tycoons in striped pants. In the afternoons he thought of these same cars as

clubwomen, well-corseted and determined. Heavy trucks with the high fronts flush with the windshield and the motor probably in the trailer he thought of as red-faced sergeant majors. One new model made him think of Rita Hayworth.

But Henry’s most stubborn fancy was the belief that the cars and trucks knew he was the last pedestrian and were out to get him. He didn’t talk about it much, just to a few clo.se friends like myself, and when he did he smiled a secret little smile and said with a touch of wistfulness, “They know.” He really did look a little like the last wood pigeon at times like that.

Henry had pretty good reasons for his suspicion that “they” knew. He had more close shaves than a female impersonator.

Not that it made him unhappy. This running fight he waged with his enemy kept Henry alert. It gave him the co-ordination of the Yankee infield and, I regret to say, the life expectancy of a radio gag.

But it gave him something else, something you had to admire no matter how wrong or daffy you thought Henry might be. It gave him dignity. Henry always laid great stock in dignity. That’s why he was a pedestrian by choice. I suppose there was a little of the medievalist in Henry. He resented and feared machines. He realized we can’t live without them but he determined to let. them have as little of his life as he could.

The Challenge of Wheels

HP HAT’S the reason he walked everywhere he I went. It meant living in a part of the city he didn’t like particularly but. it also meant that he was independent of cars, trams, buses and trains. Henry thought it was important to walk, erect and full of dignity; fulfilling all the proud upright promise implicit in the creation of man.

And he knew he was the last of his line. A much poorer man than Henry would have risen to meet that lonely challenge.

There were times when he came close to giving up the fight, drawing out his life savings and buying a used car. But these doubts left him, together with quite a few friends who thought he had become a bit odd. These friends would no more have crossed a street with him than they would have gone over Niagara Falls without a barrel.

Henry once said his last doubt about being a pedestrian left him when his friend Thorpe bought a car. From that time on Henry felt solid and secure and at times a bit doomed in his dedication.

Thorpe had for many years been a pedestrian, one of the few true ones Henry knew. Together they would walk home from work chatting pleasantly, but with their ears tuned like radar for the ominous sounds that might mean danger and perhaps death at the next intersection. Then Thorpe bought a home in the suburbs and a car.

Oh, they remained friends all right in an academic way. But in their relationship there were small strains and stresses. Henry once thought of it as something like a conscientious objector meeting a friend who had won three DFC’s. He wondered at times which was which.

Thorpe changed in many ways, Henry observed. Some of the changes were subtle and others were marked and painful. Thorpe talked a great deal about his car around the office, very much like a man who bought a moose as a pet for his children and feels he has to justify his action. He talked, merrily at first, of the trouble you had getting a good parking space. But suddenly he stopped talking about the car altogether.

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The Last Pedestrian

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many times before. More than one of his friends had bought a car and like the camel in the fable the car had moved into their lives until the sinister intelligence under the hood had devised a plot to take over the owners’ lives. Through miner frustrations in which other cars co-operated fully, by stalling in the middle of an intersection at ten to nine on the day the owner had to be in early—in all these ways and many more the cars reached out until they, not the drivers, were the master. Henry knew.

The night of the staff dinner Thorpe had a few drinks and hesitantly, and to the metronomic accompaniment of a tic in his left eye that Henry had not noticed before, he told the story. Thorpe was now completely in the grip of t he old and cunning car.

“Just tonight,” he said, “as I was coming down here to the hotel, it dropped the whole rear end like an ugly, obscene egg outside the hotel. Traffic was held up for blocks. Things were said to me that no man should have to take, Henry. And the car”— Thorpe’s voice crinkled a little at the edges and Henry put out a friendly, forgiving hand to touch the other’s shoulder—“just sat there, smug and baleful, waiting to see what I was going to do next.”

Thorpe took a deep drink.

“I’m going to get rid of it, Henry. I’m going to sell it and buy a new car. I have my name on every list in town. This is the last time that car will ever push me around. I’ll get rid of it, Henry,” he said.

“If it will let you go,” said Henry softly and then wished he hadn’t because the look of terror that leaped like flares in Thorpe’s eyes was not a pretty thing to see.

Henry knew that night he would never turn back.

Henry’s Last Day

And the lonely path he took (on foot, natch) led him, inexorable as the story line of a soap opera, to tragedy. I think it is proper to chronicle in some detail that last day, shot through as it was with the normal scream of tires and the jocular happy cries of truck drivers mousetrapped on the curb by two Fords and a Chewy. This last day, compounded as it was of danger and Henry’s will to survive, from fche beginning was unlike any other. Over it, from morning until dusk, hung the dark mantle of disaster smelling strongly of the vengeful breath of the internal combustion monster that hungered after him.

Henry left his house at the usual time in the morning, 8.32, checking his watch as he walked with the clock hanging outside a brewery. He walked with a light quick step with his weight thrown slightly forward on the balls of his feet. Each step, he was ready at an instant to feint to the right or the left or in a real emergency to jump straight up in the air.

He reached the first traffic light right

on time (8.37—check) and the light was against him. The traffic churned east and west with the green light. Henry stood on the southeast corner, sizing up the situation in the ranks of north-and southbound traffic.

There were old faces among the cars. Take that new Dodge squatting like a gleaming beetle on the inside lane of the southbound stream ready to swing hard and fast with the ready light to turn east. Henry knew it would just about make it and then it would lock bumpers with that new Mercury among the northbound cars poised to break.

Henry knew, too, there was a Ford lying just off the pace, in behind the Dodge, waiting for him.

It was there every morning, skulking like a footpad.

The traffic light chuckled with grim humor, flipped over, and swiftly the little drama began. The Dodge roared hoarsely into second, the Mercury broke fast and in the middle of the intersection the two cars stopped— frustrated.

The driver of the Dodge leaned out of his window and shouted at his opponent. “Why don’t you learn to drive?”

The driver of the Mercury, his face as red as a traffic light, shouted back. “Why don’t you-all get a horse.” (I said he was from the south.)

Henry watched them for a moment. Neither moved. The intersection was a shamble of interlocking cars and rhetorical shouts of “Why don’t you learn to drive?” It was the same five mornings a week.

Then Henry made his move.

He left the curb with a swift darting movement like a swimmer pushing off from the wall of a tank. He slipped around the back of the Mercury, still locked in its morning motorized morris dance with the Dodge. He was half there now. A few more yards—and then the Ford struck. The timing was good, better than the day before, almost too good. Henry pivoted, leaped desperately. He made the far curb. From the driver’s window of the Ford drifted back a whisper of a taunt. “Why don’t you learn to walk?”

Henry mopped his brow and struck out at a faster beat. He was three minutes off schedule now at 8.40. There was a long block with no intersections ahead of him. He could pick up at least two minutes.

He arrived at the last major intersection on his route with thirty seconds to spare. The light was against him again. Henry used the time he had gained to take stock before this final and most dangerous assault.

Hat firmly set on his head. Newspa per tightly rolled in his right hand. If they did get him the newspaper would serve as a flimsy futile club. Henry had always said he would go down swinging. Identification? He lightly patted the inner pocket of his suit coat. All correct. The top two buttons of his coat were buttoned; the bottom two open—so he could move his legs more freely.

Swiftly he checked over the solid

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ranks of cars. He had to make this crossing from west to east. Traffic was heavy. Henry recognized many of the ! cars. One in particular. It was an old Buick with an ugly scar across its hood that gave it a malevolent piratical air. Henry feared this car more than any other on the road. They were old enemies and he imagined he could see the ugly scar twist as though the old car had actually recognized him. He knew the Buick would turn and try to get him.

Henry planned his move with the care of a chess master. There wasn’t much time. The light changed, he gripped his newspaper, now damp from the sweat of his palm, and struck out. His strategy was clear as a rugby play in his mind. Three steps forward. One, two, three. The Buick literally clawed the pavement as it leaped. Henry swung easily in his last minute pivot, moving to an inner rhythm in his head. The frustrated Buick flashed past missing him by inches.

Henry walked the rest of the way to the east curb and leaned against a lamppost. His heart was pounding fiercely and happily. Sweat ran down the little gutter of his spine. He was smiling. Then Henry Blodgett took a deep breath and a chance he had never taken before. He crossed against the red light.

He made it easily. When he walked into the office that morning he did something else he had never done before, he winked at the blonde on the reception desk. It was sheer impulse and it made him feel as though he had whipped the folds of a cloak over his j shoulder. He hoped the blonde didn’t misunderstand. He needn’t have worried because she couldn’t believe he had done it.

A Matter of Safety

Henry left his office early that afternoon. He had an appointment with the director of the City Safety Council. For a long time he had intended to have a talk with him; there were some questions he wanted to ask him. Henry felt he should know more about his stat us as a pedestrian—find out if there was a Pedestrian Bill of Rights. He felt, too, you shouldn’t put these things off because you never knew.

The office was a large room with stacks of safety pamphlets on the floor,

! the desks and most of the chairs. Henry shied nervously at a dummy set of traffic lights.

‘‘They’re for the instruction of school children,” explained the director rising from his desk between pylons of folders.

He was a tall young man with a straight narrow mustache and a big hard handshake. He’d been a traffic cop before he got into safety work.

"You’ve come to the right place,” said the director moving some pamphlets from a chair for Henry. “We have one of the greatest traffic problems here j of any city in Canada. We’re almost like an American city, we have such a traffic problem.”

Henry nodded.

“I know,” he said.

"Do you know,” said the director rolling his freshly lit cigar to a corner of his mouth, "that in 80% of all fatal accidents the fault lies with the pedestrian?”

Henry stirred. He wondered if he had come to the right place.

“We’ve investigated those accidents —all of them,” said the director, as though he knew what Henry was thinking. “It’s really a crime, the way pedestrians shove those cars around. For the protection of pedestrians and motorists alike we’re trying to get a pedestrian bylaw in this town. The

way it is now you can’t charge a pedestrian with anything.”

"Not even with being a pedestrian?” asked Henry.

"The pedestrian has all the best of it. You can’t charge a pedestrian with jaywalking for instance. A pedestrian may only be charged with obstructing traffic—and then only if it can be shown he or she has crossed the street to the menace of traffic. This is almost impossible to prove and the charge is rarely laid.”

The director explained that the onus is on the motorist to exercise care and in most civil suits the judgment goes against the driver.

A young man who was standing in the corner by a map of the city sticking in colored pins to mark the location of last year’s traffic accidents spoke up.

"I was in court not long ago and a woman who had walked out from between two parked cars and was hit by another car collected $13,000 damages,” he said.

He Had the Right of Way

“See,” said the director, “if we had a pedestrian bylaw here we could charge pedestrians if they walked through a red light or crossed a street between intersections. They have one in Washington, D.C., and accidents dropped 40% in a year. The only cities in Canada that have them are Vancouver and Edmonton. Their accident rates have decreased. We’re still trying to get the city council to pass one here.”

Statistics always had a look of unreality to Henry and besides they made his head ache. After all he had come to find out where he stood as the last of a great company of pedestrians.

“Who has the right of way, a pedestrian or a car?” he asked. “Supposing I’m crossing north with the light and a car wants to turn east across my path. Who wins there?”

“The pedestrian always has the right of way. This is a carry-over from old common law which recognizes that the pedestrian was here first,” said the director.

“Then we’re kot bums,” said Henry brightly.

The official smiled and said patiently, “We’re trying to help pedestrians and motorists alike in a difficult and dangerous situation,” he said.

The young man by the map called, “We’re out of red pins.”

“The red pins represent adult pedestrians on the map,” explained the director .to Henry and bent to lóok in his desk drawer.

Henry prepared to leave.

“Just so long as you don’t run out of pedestrians, Mac . . .” he called, but both the director and the young man were both hard at work sticking pins into the map.

Out on the street the last pale rays of the afternoon sun slanted down b. tween the buildings and glanced weakly off Henry’s head. In spite of the five o’clock crowds the street seemed gloomy and lonely.

Henry turned up his coat collar and shivered. At the comer the light was red again.

He paused on the curb while the light aged, grew sere and yellow, then burgeoned green and almost friendly looking. Henry flicked away his halfsmoked cigarette and threw back his sloping shoulders as far as they would go, which wasn’t very far. He had the right of way. But he knew that didn’t matter. He was right. He stepped off the curb.

The crouching cars snarled and clashed as they leaped into the tum and with their grilles gleaming like barracudas’ dentures bore down on the last pedestrian, if