It started with an observation, as I was driving one day through an inner city neighborhood. A jaywalker casually made his way in front of my car and I said, “Wow. That guy isn’t afraid of anything.”
“I think there’s a cultural thing,” my passenger said. “I mean, I notice, they jaywalk more in the inner city.”
Did they? My “privilege” senses tingled. I started to notice jaywalkers, then, and take my own internal survey. In general, people jaywalk like mad in residential areas, regardless of socio-economic level. The one place jaywalking was rare was on very busy urban street corners, where the traffic was obeyed of necessity. But even there, wealthy white people would dart into traffic when they saw an opening, with more or less confidence based on their familiarity.
Then my husband and I went to Las Vegas for the first time. As usual when we travel, we planned on taking public transportation while there. We found this surprisingly difficult in Vegas. What was more, the walkways over the streets, which we at first thought were for our benefit as pedestrians, involved going out of your way on both sides to get up and down.
The bridge wasn’t there to help me get where I was going – it was there to make it so there were no crosswalks for the drivers to deal with. The town itself was built around the automobile, to the point where walking to an adjacent building took longer than walking to a parking lot and driving across the street.
The intersection where, long ago, my friend had made the comment about jaywalking being ‘cultural’ was between a housing project and a corner grocery. I thought about how often residents there had to cross the street to transact their daily business. I thought about how this was practically their front porch, their home. This was the space these families lived in, and I, and other drivers like me, felt a greater claim to it. They should know better. They should walk to the end of the block. The road belongs to us.
I started to get very angry. I started thinking about growing up poor, and walking six miles to the grocery store on gravel berms between traffic and no trespassing signs. I learned about urban food deserts and the history of criminalizing jaywalking.
I started writing a story about kids having to risk their lives just to get to the store. It didn’t feel like fiction.
“Cross the Street” is available today on the Cast of Wonders pocast.