I know it’s said that nobody walks in LA (or alternatively, only nobodies walk in LA). If that were true I’d probably be a great deal happier given that one of the main things that irks me about living in LA is how oblivious people seem to be to other people. This is true, too, when people are enclosed in their little plastic, glass, and metal boxes, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me much then. On foot, though, it drives me crazy, leaves me seething.
I went to college in Madison, WI, which has a huge pedestrian population. It is, however, also very orderly. In fact, as a sophomore I wrote an argument for anarchy in my political theory class that basically made the case that centralized government wasn’t really necessary because social norms (and their accompanying societal sanctions) could achieve the same ends. I cited as examples the orderly progression of students up and down Bascom Hill (which has two main sidewalks and is incredibly crowded but mostly avoids pandemonium because on both sidewalks there’s two streams of students who avoid colliding by keeping right) and dorm elevator behavior (don’t you dare take the elevator to the 3rd floor unless you’re crippled or sick to the point of near death). The point was less that these were important examples than it was that these were totally self-organizing example. It was sort of a silly, simplistic political argument, but for a 19 year old who was absolutely NOT an anarchist, I think I made a reasonably solid case, particularly given that this class was my first experience in arguing for things I didn’t actually have an emotional attachment to. I have since realized, however, that the argument worked only because I was a sophomore at UW. Had I been a UCLA sophomore I couldn’t have possibly argued that self-organization leads to outcomes nearly as orderly as rules imposed from the outside, no way, no how.
I really do love a lot of things about LA but I spend a lot of time out in public grumbling to myself “why don’t these people get out of the way. One could argue that this is merely the shock of moving from a small midwestern city to a large over-crowded metropolis. And I’m sure that to some extent that is an explanation. However, in Madison I lived in the extremely dense downtown area and I’d hazard a guess that my daily experiences there actually brought me into the presence of way more people than my daily life in LA does. Even Target on the weekend can’t really hold a candle to the UW campus between classes. The truth is I think the difference is cultural. I think people in LA simply don’t pay attention. I think many people here think they’re entitled to walk through life without taking into account other people’s needs. In short, I think people here are RUDE! And it annoys me. A lot.
Take for instance one morning last week when I walked into the office kitchen to rinse out my coffee cup in the sink. The kitchen was crowded with a group of people waiting for the conference room to open up. Our kitchen has a large table in the middle and to get to the sink requires walking around the table. A woman was standing at the table directly in front of the sink. “Excuse me,” I said. Rather than scooting down the empty table far enough that I could stand fully in front of the sink, she shifted slightly to her right. “Oh well, at least I can now reach the handle on the faucet” I sighed to myself and set to washing my cup, while leaning slightly to actually be holding my cup over the sink (and then leaning more dramatically to reach the pile of paper towels to dry it). Then I turned to leave, only to discover that another woman had filed in behind the table such that my way out was completely blocked. Fortunately the table is just far enough from the wall that two people can pass comfortably. That is, they can if one of them makes an effort not to be standing directly in the middle of the available space. I walked toward the woman. “Excuse me” I said as I reached the point where I had to pass her. And she responded by swaying ever so slightly forward. She did not move her feet to step forward so I could pass. She did not step around the end of the table so that I could pass without even having to turn sideways to do so. Simply put, she did not get out of the way. I squeezed behind her as best I could, thinking the whole time “really? really you feel so entitled that you cannot bother to step forward six inches to make someone else’s life easier?” One might argue that she was so engrossed in her conversation that she did not hear my “excuse me.” I would respond to that by pointing out that a) being so absorbed in your own stuff that you don’t notice your effect on other people is itself rude, rude, rude* and b) she did respond, ever so slightly, to my entreaty, just not by getting out of my way.
(* yes, of course, I also find myself frequently in situations where I have lost track of my surroundings and accidentally put myself in the way. It’s an unavoidable thing in a crowded world. The difference, though, is that I realize it when the other person gets within excusing distance, at which point I apologize and I MOVE)
If this were an isolated sort of incident I would not make sweeping indictments about the courtesy levels of my fellow Angelenos. However, the days I work in the office, I walk about four blocks from where I park my car to the office. That’s 4 blocks, twice per day, 3 days per week (plus a walking to lunch on days when I don’t bring my own or go to the burrito place half a block away). The sidewalks in Westwood are wide but have many trees. This means that practically speaking much of the sidewalk is only two people wide. As result I find myself frequently stepping aside when I get to tree because I am being approached by people walking two abreast who show no sign of dropping back to single file so that I can pass without being knocked aside into the break in the sidewalk where the tree is. Never is this met with an “excuse me,” a “thank you,” or even a simple smile. It is as if it is perfectly natural to people that I would stop walking, and step aside to accommodate their passage. I can forgive this for tired mamas wrangling strollers and toddlers. But hear me, self-absorbed twenty-somethings walking with friends: you do not get a pass. You are simply being rude.
Again, this is not a story of a couple of isolate incidents. I was finding myself stepping aside, or significantly altering my path on this walk every single day. (And let’s not even talk about the guy who stood directly in the middle of the sidewalk on a dark rainy evening; did not move when I spoke that treasured phrase of passing, forcing me to brush against a wet tree to slide past him; and then, nearly immediately after I passed started following me to the parking garage, having apparently finally woken from his reverie and decided it was time to go home, without thinking for even a moment that suddenly starting to follow a woman toward a parking garage in the dark might scare her half to death). And we’re talking here just about the 4 blocks I walk between office and car. This pattern does not count the shopper who stops directly in the middle of the aisle to answer his cell phone, with no regard for those who might be walking behind him. Or the shopper who parks her cart in the middle of the aisle, leaving barely room for a person to walk around it, and certainly no room for a person with a cart to do so.
I have finally decided that I’ve simply had it and will not put up with this nonsense any more. And I am trying to train myself to walk the streets as if I am entitled, as if I am so important that I cannot be bothered to deviate my own course to accommodate the needs of anyone else. In short, I am trying to train myself to be rude. I set out to where I’m going, staying to the right, and walk a straight line. The effect is somewhat enlightening. First of all, I find it extremely uncomfortable not to deviate my path when approaching people who are obviously heading either straight for me, or too close to my own path to conform to my notion of comfortable distance. I have not yet had anyone collide with me but frequently people pass much closer than I would like. I did encounter one guy who appeared to be performing almost exactly the same experiment as me, except instead of keeping right, he kept left, meaning that we encountered each other on the edge of an otherwise empty sidewalk. He appeared to see me but made no move to actually deviate from his course. I was tempted to take the game of chicken to its conclusion out of pure curiosity but swerved out of his way for a couple of reasons. 1) I really dislike physical contact with strangers, particularly men, and slamming headlong into a strange guy on the sidewalk would not just be rude but would also trigger all my other body and space issues. But, more importantly, 2) my major complaint is with people–particularly small groups of people–who take no care to leave room for other people such that you have to stop and step aside to let them pass. Given that he had left the entire rest of the sidewalk free I couldn’t very well tar him with the same brush. And so I stepped into the middle of the sidewalk and walked around him.
I find it fascinating how uncomfortable it is for me to not step out of people’s way and how little effort other people seem to go to get out of my way. In most cases it would be trivial for one of two people walking abreast to slow their pace slightly and drop behind their companion for a moment. This almost never happens. And, as I have noted, no one has actually run into me but I am astounded by how close they come. I have also noticed that my patience for groups of people standing blocking the sidewalk (particularly at lunch outside restaurants) has dropped to zero. My “excuse me” as I try to get through no longer contains even the slightest hint of sweet courtesy. The tone is pure “pay attention and get out of the way.” But Friday I saw a guy who clearly was more fed up than me with the lack of courtesy displayed by others. A group stood in front of restaurant, taking up the entire sidewalk. The guy was approaching the group from one direction and I from the other (but he was closer). When he came to the edge of the group he paused. The guy at the boundary swayed slightly forward but did not actually move and so as he walked past him he elbowed him in back. I’m not a shover and I don’t aspire to become that rude. Trust me, though, I thought about it when the guy who’d just been elbowed–and had stepped forward when the elbowing happened–stepped back into his previous space immediately after, resulting in him being completely in my way when I reached him seconds later. And, of course, he did not move to let me through. Maybe it’s because I so dislike physical confrontation. Maybe it was because the guy was a lot bigger than me. Or maybe it was because I was full of tasty sushi and mostly content with life. But I settled for barking “excuse me” and when he didn’t move I broke my own rules and deviated from my path, and made use of the area around the adjoining tree to get around him, seething the whole time. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn if I want to achieve LA levels of rudeness.