Stop, Look, Listen

It’s taught before you even get to Kindergarten: stop, look, listen.

On the corners of the major intersections in Aldenville when I was growing up (OK, there were, maybe, three major intersections in Aldenville when I was growing up and I think there are STILL only three major intersections in Aldenville), the street-crossing warning was stencilled on the sidewalk in white paint.

But just in case some of the schoolchildren had not yet learned to read or, just as likely, the paint had faded, we had a crossing guard. For the life of me I can’t remember her name, but I can remember her curly auburn hair, oval face and the crease of her smile, the blue windbreaker jacket she wore under her orange-and-white bib. She was probably in her fifties and had a gravely laugh. Once – I was in Grade 4 or Grade 5 – I got to the corner at the same time as Chuck P’s older sister (her name was Gina; she had long, soft brown hair, rim glasses, what I would later identify as a sizeable rack but at that age – and the fact that she was my friend Chuck’s sister – I wasn’t paying attention to). The crossing guard played a game with us every morning. One of us won by guessing the closest to the actual time on the crossing guard’s watch. With one declared winner, we would all cross the street together.

So, in Aldenville, Massachusetts, crossing the street is like playing a game. Stop, look, listen, guess the time, cross the street.

In England, for a North American, that’s not so easy. You have to learn to look right
first. You learn quickly, or you get hurt.

There’s an old joke: What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist?

An optimist looks one way before crossing a street.

As I have said to my wife, Denise, many times: What I have is not pessimism. It is realism.

Many countries that were once part of the United Kingdom drive on the other side of the road, including India. The United Arab Emirates were not colonized the way India was though they were known for a time as the Trucial States and were rather closely tied to Britain. When they drew up the roads, the Emirates veered left.

So you’d think…

But no. Everyone here is a pessimist. Everyone here looks left, left, right, right, left, left, right and then jets across the street. Every morning and every evening at rush hour, it is the same thing: left, left, right, right, left, left, right and zoom. Skinny little Indian men in their crisply starched shirts, Afghans in their dishdashas, Pakistani labourers on their beaten down bicycles, women of ethnic origins unknown because of the full black veil and
abaya – left left right.

Abu Dhabi – and it’s worse in Dubai, where there’s more traffic – is driven by a car culture. It is apparent in the number of vehicles per capita, in the size of the vehicles, in the number of Mercedes, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. It is obvious in the number of pedestrian and vehicular deaths per year: In Abu Dhabi alone? Nine hundred last year. That’s three a day.

The major streets, avenues and roads are all multi-lane boulevards, aka highways. There are crosswalks at intersections and at various points along a long street, but these are ignored. At each intersection, there is a right turn lane, like a right-turn highway exit ramp. Drivers yield neither to pedestrians nor the traffic they are about the join.

At most intersections, drivers are allowed to U-turn. So if the pedestrian has successfully made it across the street to the median, he cannot assume he is clear to cross the rest of the way: The cars he just walked by might turn into the lane he’s trying to cross.

Yellow lights are short and meant to be obeyed.

The safest way to cross is to wait for the walk signal, the Green Walking Man, the Giacometti of traffic signals. When he starts flashing, run.

Since I have yet to join a health club – the waiting lists are long – and I have no access to an exercise machine of any kind, I have taken to walking to work. It’s a 50-minute hike along one of the busiest streets in the city, Airport Road. I cross six major streets and innumerable smaller ones plus entrances to stores, gas stations and lube centres and taxi stands. I am on constant alert, vigilant, a Boy Scout.

I have grown in confidence, but watchful that this comfort with my urban environment not grow into complacency. Over-confidence is dangerous.

When I was 16, my friends Glenn and Glenn (we differentiated by calling one Benji) and I left for Maine with our backpacks with the intention of walking back to Massachusetts along the Appalachian  Trail. We took the bus and hitchhiked up to the starting point,
the mile-high Mount Katahdin. The trail wound us under canopies of tall evergreens, across scaly mountain ridges, over plank bridges in black fly-infested bogs.

On July 4, we faced fording the Kennebec  River. A couple of days or so before, we had happened to come across some college kids also walking the trail. They had advised us on the best way to cross the river: Do it three times.

The river, where the trail meets it, is at least two hundred yards wide. Its bottom is rocky and there are patches of white where the water descends over a rock or to meet a rock and having met it crashes and splashes before continuing on its way. White water signals the presence of a rock.

The river was shallow when we were there, but would rise dramatically when the dam upstream was opened to allow for swift transport of logs and felled trees. Our Appalachian Trial guide indicated the dam opened afternoons. We checked our watches. It was coming on noon.

As shallow as the river was, we waded through hip- and waist-high water. We each had walking sticks. If the dam opened, how high would the water get? How fast would the logs come down?

Before the first crossing, we emptied our backpacks on the pebbly shore. We then loaded our packs with all non-essential goods, keeping only our sleeping bags and boots and a few other items on shore. We put sneakers on our bare feet, hitched our packs high on our shoulders by tying the hip belt around our stomachs. In we went.

The walk over was slow. We watched where the college guys had gone and followed a similar path, if there can be such a thing in a river, which is the very definition of perpetual motion. We were careful to place our feet rather than just walk across and eventually, Benji, then I, then Glenn got across.

We emptied our packs and traversed again, conscious this time of how the change in weight affected our resistance against the water. Just as deliberately, just as carefully, we got to the starting point, where the college guys were loading their packs again.

“This is the hardest part,” one said. “You’ve done it two times so you think, ah, no problem. But this is where you’ve got to be most careful.”

Glenn, Benji, then me. We entered. We tried to follow the path we had taken before. We kept the advice in our heads: tread carefully. We were also incredibly, vitally, aware that this was our third crossing, we were tired, and each of the previous two crossings had not been easy or short. It was long past noon.

We marked a solid point with our walking sticks, trusted our senses and placed our feet one at a time, praying for solid purchase. Though we were in the water, we waddled like ducks on land. We kept one eye upstream. Did the water seem to be rising? What time was it?

We were no longer following each other. I had caught up. We walked almost three abreast. Glenn upstream and slightly ahead. Benji in the middle, an arm’s length away. And me, the least-strongest swimmer, downstream of them about four feet.

Stick, foot, foot, watch. Stick, foot, foot, watch. Stick, foot, foot. Stick, foot. No problem. It was like crossing a street in Aldenville: a game.

And then the splash; and something was sweeping by. I reached into the water, like a bear for salmon, and grabbed for a backpack, the one thing that hadn’t gone completely under. It stopped Benji’s downstream motion. Glenn reached us within seconds and we hauled him out of the water.

We were only halfway across. The water was due to rise. We abandoned all caution and made for the opposite shore as quickly as we could, Glenn and I on opposite  sides of our shaken, drenched hiking companion.

Later than night, a man from a town just off the trail came up to the lean-to we were
sharing with the college guys. He had a pot of Maine-style baked beans, cooked slowly in a hole in the ground, and peach ice cream his wife had made. We had sparklers. We sang “America the Beautiful” as the sun set over the lake. The dam, he said, isn’t opened on
the Fourth of July.

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