Things That Are Different: Crossing The Road

The first time I came to America, I stayed with an aunt and uncle in Missouri who loathed their high-achieving, tennis-champion daughter so much that she was in danger of being kicked out. I was 14, and got on a plane (unescorted! yeah near-adulthood!) and had no idea that I would essentially be confined to their property as no-one could be bothered to take me out anywhere except one to get fudge, and once to see some stupid Arch. I was stuck indoors for the whole summer.

In Missouri.

Far from letting that put me off, I returned 10 years later to do a 3-month trip around as much of America as I could get in. I had no plans, no map and a finite amount of money, having quit my lucrative job as a sales assistant to do this.

I started out in Denver, CO for a music festival. Letting price comparison websites dictate where I stayed, I naively trusted the overall ratings instead of poring through the individual reviews.

Here’s some context for you. In England, every hotel looks like this:

no riff-raff allowed. no frank-n-furter, either.

When I got to my hotel in Denver, CO, it looked like this:

Not brilliant: a bit dated, a bit campy, looks like a waffle (which, by the way, were included in the not-free breakfast) or the last resting place of Hansel and Gretel.

But it met my requirements for a hotel: clean, safe and relatively close to downtown. However, this is what I saw when I walked outside to cross the road:

An enormous set of wide-laned crossroads, each big enough to host a fight between the two biggest dinosaurs of all time. I had never seen traffic lights as humungous as the ones that towered over me. The buttons were bigger than my face. I pressed one, and waiting the standard length of time that I would do in the UK (5-8 seconds), I noticed the cars weren’t stopping, and I didn’t hear any beeping or see a light go amber. Finally, one of the lanes stopped, but the other three didn’t. Some drivers stared at me.

I didn’t know what to do. This was a huge set of crossroads, each with its own Traffic Light de Eiffel. Did they each stop one lane? Was I supposed to press all of them? Did I have to indicate? Should I have been wearing special reflective pads?

Eight minutes later (it was midday, middle of July…in Denver), a tiny light came on on the traffic light wayyyy on the other side of the street, saying, “WALK”. No beeping, no amber light for the drivers. Just went from green to red.

Fearing that it would just decide to turn red again at any second,  I sprinted across while congratulating myself on crossing my first American road.

Then I realized I’d gone in the wrong direction.

Now that I live in Massachusetts, I’ve learned that pedestrians have the right of way. Unfortunately, this means that it’s up to you when to cross any road smaller than a crossroads, because none of the smaller roads have any kind of signal/pedestrian crossing. This results in having to co-ordinate crossings en-masse (much like Londoners do, regardless of traffic light colours) in the hopes that no-one decides to mow you down.

Most street-crossing paths in my area are designated by two fresh, thick stripes of white paint. If you walk an inch out of those lines, all cars apparently have permission to plow into you.

Many downtown streets are single-carriageway, so one lane will happily stop to let you pass, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the drivers in the other lane will give a shit about letting you live, causing you to narrowly escape a sucker punch in the gut from their wing mirror. Then, not realizing that the other drivers are still driving in the lane next to them, the stopped driver(s) will beep and yell at you, because wherever they’re going with their heroically-wheeled small islands is clearly more important than wherever you’re fucking off to with your puny little legs. So I guess they’re being polite by not making me into roadkill.

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Not that traffic lights force anyone to stop. Drivers will constantly try to beat the red light, probably to escape the sound that signals everyone to cross. It’s not the gentle “bleep-bloop” that you’re used to hearing when you’ve walked out of the tea room for your 5-minute walk home. No, it’s an angry, loud, obnoxious (yes, yes, I know), demonic, growling snarl, like Satan’s schoolbell.

Satan: You’d better frickin’ cross! You know how much the fine for jaywalking in Massachusetts is? You’d be lost without me! I own your soul! Bwahahaha!

I will never get used to that sound. Every time I’m on the phone to my parents and this sound blasts straight through they can’t believe I haven’t gone deaf by now or hear it in my nightmares. Maybe you just get used to it. That’s probably why everyone likes to push the traffic light button, no matter how many people are already standing there who have clearly already pressed the motherfudging button. Or maybe they just think it will make the cars stop sooner, much like continuously pressing the button for a lift will make it appear faster than the sorry twat who pressed it before you.

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