On the Shoulder

September 1998

Whoever said the Kentucky Derby was the most exciting two minutes in sports has never traveled on Route 20 as a pedestrian. Granted, the majority of my walk to work is through the idyllic Village, but my office is about a quarter of a mile outside the Village gates, and the open road is undeniably thrilling.

Last week as I walked home, a man in a deep green Jeep Grand Cherokee was slowed by a car turning left into the gas station, and used the shoulder of the road to pass on the right without losing any speed. I was already there. While preparing to leap across the ditch, I tried to make eye contact, but he never saw me. He was on the phone.

Thursday on the way to work, it was foggy and in the distance I could see headlights on the shoulder, coming my way. They were not pulling back onto the road, but rather hanging tough with another pair of headlights alongside, neck and neck, racing towards the Village gates. I decided to watch this one from the Chevy dealer’s parking lot. Moments later a woman wearing boxy “cataract” sunglasses and peering intently over the top of the steering wheel roared by on the shoulder at 55 mph. A driving co-worker said she had passed at least five cars in the mile between Route 175 and the Village, probably wondering why no one else was taking advantage of the open lane.

I thought I’d seen it all, but no. On Friday, I was walking past the Chevy dealer, on the shoulder of the road, facing oncoming traffic, when I heard a noise behind me. I turned to see a car directly behind me, on the shoulder, honking now so I would get out of the way. It was a mechanic driving a new car with no license plates from the dealership to the car wash next door, not wanting to take the car onto the road. So he was driving the wrong way on the shoulder, and very annoyed with me for being in the way.

(I have since dodged the dealer’s cars two more times, and also that of a man delivering newspapers to the mailboxes along the road, stuffing them into the boxes while seated at the wheel of his car. He too was very annoyed with me for delaying him, and muttered at me in frustration as he rolled past on his way to the next box.)

* * *

In response to this piece, Roland Sweet wrote:

“You are fighting a losing battle. Having lived 10 years in Syracuse and Skaneateles without a car, I can testify that motorists and teenagers, whether behind the wheel or riding as passengers, regard walkers with scorn and derision. Even before that, as a member of the United States Air Force in Biloxi, Mississippi, whenever I stepped outside the main gate, I risked being pelted with garbage thrown from passing cars by contemptuous civilians.

“To survive verbal and physical abuse, you must dispel the notion that you are anything but an accidental pedestrian. First, dress normally. Wear nothing that calls attention to yourself unless it is outwear emblazoned with NASCAR, Ford or Chevrolet logos. This will signal your affinity with motor vehicles. Other motorists will regard you not as some neo-Luddite who shuns the motor car but as an unfortunate minimum-wage earner who aspires to own one.

“Second, buy a red gas can. It may be a small one, and you needn’t carry gas in it. In fact, it could be modified to tote tea or Coca-Cola. You simply want to convey the impression while you are walking that you are a driver who has run out of gas.”

In another letter that arrived last week, Al Hoff wrote from Pittsburgh:

“I am the pedestrian of all time… I easily walk 20 miles a week on city streets. I have already ordered my headstone; it reads: ‘She had the light.'”

And so I continue to walk, and some days even the drivers have pleasant surprises for me. The night before Halloween, I was coming home from work and as I approached the Village on Route 20, a car pulled over and stopped right in front of me. It was dusk and the light was fading, but I could see that it was a woman I have been saying hello to for the past three years, with little response. She did once say, “Your garden is lovely,” but she did not change her expression.

And yet here she was, rolling down her window and leaning out with a huge smile on her face. I had no idea what was coming.

“Look at the moon!” she shouted, and I turned around, and there, rising up right behind me in the east, was a huge, straw-colored moon. She did not want me to miss it.

“Thank you,” I said, and I meant it.

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