Postcard from New York: Walkers of the world unite

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Indy Lifestyle Online
NOT SO LONG ago, rolling-pin-brandishing enemies of leisure sought to make horse racing illegal in the southwestern state of Oklahoma. Oklahoma being uncluttered by very many obstructions to the average horse, a number of people tipped their cowboy hats up and did some head-scratching, trying to figure out the reasons why an Oklahoma horse shouldn't run as fast as it wanted to, if it wanted to. They couldn't even think of one, so they came up with a television campaign that showed freedom-loving Oklahomans gambolling among the red dust and cottonwood-dotted hills, raising their horses from colthood to racing length, only to have their Derby dreams dashed outside the gate by horse-hating spoil-sports. The cry went out, "Let them run in Oklahoma!" and soon after, a bumper sticker duly emerged, stamping the sentiment on the back of every pick-up truck. While the antis gnashed their teeth, the horses champed at the bit and won their day at the races.

Recollections such as this one, drawn from the reservoir of experiences of those New Yorkers who were born far from corner knish stands, come in very handy when the city throws a monkey wrench into public life so unexpected, so foreign, that native inhabitants lack the equipment to understand what has hit them. Such a betrayal hit town in recent weeks, as joint municipal forces launched an insidious traffic campaign on the city, intended to bridle and rein in pedestrians as thoroughly, speedily and inexorably as they had just succeeded in mastering city transport. Now that the trains were running on time and graffiti had been made impossible, the logic must have gone; now that street maps and signs had been made legible for the benefit of daytrippers; now that multi-day travel passes had been invented which co-ordinated the buses with the subways (a measure Europe discovered around the time of the invention of the aeroplane) - now was the time to subdue the wayward pedestrian.

Lifelong New Yorkers did not know to fear, but for the transplants among them, the path to come was clear. In mid-December, at the height of the Christmas rush, tons of bricks "accidentally" began raining down on Madison Avenue, slightly wounding a passer-by and somehow necessitating the closure of Madison Avenue in Midtown - a shopping artery as vital as Oxford Street or Knightsbridge - not for days, but for weeks, as makeshift tunnels were erected to "protect" and impress would-be strollers. Then, during Christmas week, ten Midtown corners were barricaded and manned with scores of police sentries, to prohibit self-propelling people from crossing the street and hindering the flow of automobiles. Expensive red and white metal signs went up, paid for, of course, by the public till, but not for the public weal, of a walking man with a red bar, slashing diagonally through him. In other words: open season on pedestrians. Unwary walkers made light of the clampdown, flouting the anti-walking laws, and proudly brazening their way across the streets by foot. But when a young city employee was sacked after jestingly telling a reporter that police control of crowds was "nonsensical", the populace slowly understood the trap that had risen around them. Within hours, watchdog tabloids blasted the Mayor's crowd control plot with a banner headline that blared, "ACHTUNG! Anti-pedestrian signs in Midtown". But later that night, a massive building rumbled to the ground in Times Square, unleashing an awesome torrent of rubble only one block from the "Crossroads of the World". Had the building given its last heave 24 hours later, it could have creamed thousands of Fussganger gathered for the annual Times Square ball-drop. Paranoid New Yorkers stayed away in droves, which had been the plan all along, of course, as it made room for drunk, cash-rich tourists.

Last week, as an explosion opened a 20ft crater on lower Fifth Avenue, entirely swallowing a car, and submerging the avenue in chest-high flood waters and gas-main explosions, New Yorkers packed their brogues, penny loafers and hiking boots in mothballs and, glumly, gave up. Oklahoma-born New Yorkers shook their heads sadly; it was too late to shout, "Let them walk in New York City!" and besides, New Yorkers didn't have pick-up trucks to put the bumper stickers on, even if they'd thought of it in time.

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