I have lived in countries around the world. Each culture seems to have its own set of rules for the road. A lack thereof may be more like it. In some places, it seems the rules are there are no rules.
I lived and studied in West Africa in the country of Mali for six months when I was in college. Mali seemed to have one basic rule—survival. Do whatever you need to do to not get killed.
The students in my program would line up on the side a wide thoroughfare. We would poise ourselves, psychologically preparing for the task ahead.
“Go!” we would scream and run like the devil full-speed/tilt to the other side, gasping and shrieking with laughter when we arrived/got there.
A couple years after I graduated from college, I traveled to France to teach English in elementary schools in the region of Bretagne for a school year.
In France, my housemate and I—when we were still talking to each other—would walk around town together. At crosswalks, we would patiently wait for the pedestrian light to illuminate, informing our well-trained minds that it was now safe to cross the road. Instead of the symbol of a person in white, a similar version of an ambulatory individual in green would appear.
“On traverse?” we would look at each other and say in tandem. Translated, “shall we cross?”
It became apparent that the symbols on the stoplight had little effect on the flow of traffic. Cars seemed to keep driving, even if we started to cross the street. They would just weave around us. We had a running joke about it. Every time the light changed and the cars kept on driving by, we would say “l’homme vert est nulle,” which means, “the green man means nothing.”
Recent adventures in crossing the street are part of the daily rhythm of life in downtown Lowell. I cross Dutton Street a minimum of two times each day of my workweek.
Even the people I cross the street with are fascinating. One evening after work this past summer, I watched a man cross the street in the same direction away from downtown but on the other side. He was pushing a stroller. Inside the stroller sat a large tire. I did a double take just make sure there wasn’t also a baby tucked away somewhere in there.
Friday morning, I began crossing the street but must have been hidden from view by cars in the far lane. A large SUV came flying around the corner along a small stretch of Market Street that was recently opened to two-way traffic. I wouldn’t say I responded exactly like a deer in the headlights. We did this pedestrian automobile dance where I did a kind of left to right and back to left again lean and he veered the car in a strange mirroring response to my every move, finally slowing the car down to an abrupt stop. I could see the fear in his face, the dread of how the tide could have turned.
It took me a minute to get my bearings and snap back into reality. Remembering I was standing in the middle of the street, I hustled along to the other side, heart racing. Did that really just happen?
This morning, crossing Dutton Street to head to work once again, I made sure I was visible and the light was scarlet red. Not yellow, nor any color that could be misconstrued as the one that dictates it is once again time to rev an engine and resume speeding along the streets of Lowell.
Alas, my efforts were no match for brazen, testosterone-filled dudes in another large SUV. Just as I walked in front of the vehicle, the driver—for fun?—jumped forward and slammed on the brakes. I jumped just ahead of the car, landed on my feet, and turned and sneered at him. He smiled and his friend waved. Maybe this was the adult version of little boys running around the playground, chasing girls and trying to kiss them while they scream bloody murder.
Whatever it was, I did not find it amusing, and I let them know.
I have to keep myself in check, particularly my tendency to collect odds and ends I find around town or to stop and watch the survival dance of the birds and squirrels. I absolutely LOVE the white male pigeon and his harem that live in a Bermuda triangle among the buildings that surround the four-way intersection where Dutton, and Street collide. He is so very handsome and behaves just like my roosters in Washington, all cocky. I don’t mind his masculine behavior, but I am sure that is because it isn’t directed at me. Were I a female pigeon, I might be singing a different song.
My coworker regularly chides me for picking up trash bags. “Just be careful,” she says. “One of these days might fall into the canal.”
I remembered these words this afternoon as I watched a plastic bag floating from the sidewalk into the street and toward the Eastern Canal while I stood by the window of the second floor of the Visitor Center. My first reaction was one from the gut—to run down the stairs, out the door, and into the street to retrieve it. I had an argument with myself about whether or not to go after it.
“Just let it go,” the marieke voice of reason said.
“But it could fall into the canal! We don’t need any more plastic in the ocean. I have to go get it!”
It was a moment of desperation, not to mention the guilt that I would feel in leaving it to the wind’s devices.
In the end, I let it go, hoping the wind would blow it against the side of the building that houses the visitor center off of Market Street. Maybe, I will be able to grab it on my way home and send it to the recycling center where it belongs.