Here comes the couple. What a lovely walk they are having. Oh dear, they don’t seem to have seen you even though you are walking toward them. You are walking—as is proper—on the right. The sidewalk is not huge. They will need to make some space so you can comfortably pass by one another. They are not making space.
But hang on, they can see you. Masks do not cover eyes. Yet still they walk, two abreast, in that odd mix of toward you and at you. Hmm, you think, I will have to align myself surreally against the side of this building next to me because otherwise there will be no space between us. The couple—romantically linked or not, it does not matter—does not do the simple and correct thing, which is to go single file for the moment to pass you, airy gap between both parties. Instead, they blithely carry on—let’s call it “couple-spreading”—all the way. You and the side of the building become intimate. Nothing must impede the onward march of coupledom.
What is the couple’s resistance to going single file? Could their relationship or friendship suddenly be imperiled if they were made to walk one in front of the other for two seconds? Will they not regain couple normality if required to do this?
Couple-spreading is a sidewalk problem for the ages, now made newly annoying. It used to be that one made snap judgments about people based on how they looked or spoke. An offhand remark or a flash of wit was a personality bat-signal.
Now, living under the novel coronavirus lockdown, the snap judgment is: What space does this person, or people, take up on a sidewalk, or in a store? Why are they so close to me in this checkout line? Why are they standing right behind my shoulder?
We should not be outside too much, and take up as little space as possible when we do. So ask yourself: Are you thoughtfully evaluating the space you are occupying next to your fellow humans, or are you unnecessarily invading space? Do you see the strips of tape on the store floor signifying where to stand, or do you just want to get to that checkout now?
Our daily time outside in the world under lockdown is not only precious as a momentary escape from being cooped up inside, it is a test of our own collective civic responsibility. It is a test of spatial etiquette. It is also a small, daily test of our own humanity; a small, daily test of our own consideration toward others; and a small, daily test of how we responsibly and thoughtfully occupy the spaces we share.
At least on my daily solo walks in New York City, it is a test that many thoughtless jerks—as they are known in the highly academic jargon of the University of Moi—are failing miserably. If your daily walks are like mine—a twisting, winding game of observing the number and movements of folk around me, and then choosing not-that-street, maybe-that-street, oh-hell-someone-is-walking-right-at-me—welcome to the lockdown pedestrian club.
Really, the rules of the sidewalk, or any public space right now, are simple: Stay to the right, and go single file. Take note of people around you. If you need to check your phone, step to the side. Imbibe these sidewalk lessons now, and they will make you an even better urban human if and when what passes for normality returns.
The many violations of street etiquette are obviously not the most terrible thing happening around us, but they are enraging in the way that all thoughtlessness is enraging. They are doubly enraging because the coronavirus crisis cloaks everything, and thoughtless behavior shows that some people’s own self-interest still trumps all. They can’t even do the smallest thing to make the world around them just that tiny bit better.
Welcome to the new nightmare game of hopscotch
It is not just the couples and small groups who wander down sidewalks or through parks not registering those around them. It is also the joggers, who don’t seem to realize that the people walking near them also have a right to exist. On sidewalks, they suddenly materialize, huffing and puffing sweatily onto pedestrians. Joggers, this is simple: Go somewhere that does not mean running toward or next to pedestrians. Jog along empty roads safely. Jog away from people who are not jogging.
The other major sidewalk population, dogs and their owners, rarely irritate. The pups’ long leads can stretch across a sidewalk, the pets random in their inquiring sniffing and movements, but thank goodness for the dogs of New York City. Just their bouncy, trotting being is a gulp of visual champagne, an instant pick-me-up.
Street intrusions of all kinds come down to space, its ownership, and now—under lockdown—how prized and transgressive that space feels. We have more physical space than ever before. If we are able to go outside, that can feel liberating. There is silence where once there was noise. There are now many fewer people where once there were crowds.
But, as the repeated, unheeded requests to socially distance show, certain members of the public cannot occupy this space responsibly. This is perhaps because an open space immediately invites occupation, and it becomes even more attractive to some if that occupation is in some way forbidden. Let the defiance begin.
For some reason, instead of everyone using this new space around us in a way that can be safe and enjoyable, a thoughtless few are turning it into a nightmare game of hopscotch, or a crazy game of Frogger and Pac-Man for the rest of us. In a small urban park at the weekend I saw loose groups amble and sit together, the pathways again occupied by groupings walking horizontally. The solo walker was left to do their usual dodge and weave.
It is not just couples. It is groups of people, and other solo pedestrians who don’t apparently know how to make way for others. It is the man on the street who on Monday didn’t follow the “stay right” maxim and strode down the middle of the sidewalk, creating a surrounding pedestrian effect of “Which way should I go?” In the store on Sunday, a woman behind me ignored the required taped gaps in line. “Oh, it’s so crowded and so slow,” she whined, her breath gliding the back of my neck.
On the streets, cyclists have seemingly gone full speed freak, whizzing the right and wrong way down city streets. If you hoped your walks would now be more peaceful and safer on NYC’s suddenly tumbleweed thoroughfares, the freshly liberated urban cyclist will soon shatter your idyll. On Monday, crossing Fifth Avenue, even with the pedestrian light showing in my favor, was like braving a mini-Tour de France.
None of this counts as a significant fracture in the social order, but in the three weeks of this lockdown, my walks in the city—during the day but especially at night—show a fraying of civility and thoughtfulness. Nighttime walking now has an uncomfortable edge. The walker finds him or herself being much more watchful than before the crisis. Night walking in a city is one of its most pleasurable luxuries; now, not so much, even with the combined mystery of darkness and silence.
People are drunk on lockdown empty space and its curiosities and contradictions. They are disorientated, frustrated, happy to be outside, and yet understandably restless in their strange, shut-down, wounded city. This multi-element “acting out” is understandable, but people should do it so it doesn’t affect complete strangers. It’s what howling at the moon was invented for. So go howl. Over there.
As these infractions happen over and over again, you wonder: What does someone’s lack of care and attention toward their fellow humans show? Well, it shows that, to them, their presence and their need to do whatever they are doing outweighs the unknown needs of the people they are sharing a space with.
This selfishness is practiced by those who, even before the coronavirus, lived in the city in a purely transactional way. They were then—and are now—simply availing themselves of it. The city is a service item to them. In lockdown, they expect it to provide the goods and services they want. That is all.
But right now, we have our own important end of the bargain to fulfill. After doing as we are told, and staying home as much as possible, how we treat each other on the streets—in our brief, now masked sorties outside—is the next, most obvious test of the social contract.
Are you sharing your space equably? Are you giving way? Are you making enough room? Giving a stranger a wide berth, or overtly avoiding someone on a narrow stretch of sidewalk, is the kindest, most generous thing you can do right now.
Here’s a simple test to correct our coronavirus street etiquette. When outside, look up and around at the world near you. In your masks, look at that person coming toward you. Step to the right. Couples and groups, go single file. There, you see: It works. The sidewalk can flow in glorious harmony. Well done, you’re finally living in the city.