Here at Yale, my California driver’s license serves a very important function: entry into bars and nightclubs. And that’s it. Most of the time, I forget that I am allowed, or in fact even know how, to drive. I am a pure and permanent pedestrian.
Walking in New Haven certainly has its advantages, the most obvious being not driving in New Haven. The city is a maze of one-way streets, dead ends and roundabout loops. On the rare occasions I do get in a car, I find myself unable to give directions; my walking routes are untranslatable into driving routes.
Another argument against driving in New Haven is the drivers themselves. Early in my time at Yale, someone described them as drivers who think they’re New York drivers, but lack style. Elm City drivers make reckless turns, speed through yellow lights and honk their horns, but they don’t quite cut it. They are not impressively daring or aggressive: They are simply bad drivers.
New Haven drivers, unfortunately, are also the worst part about being a pedestrian in this city. Luckily, we clever Yalies have devised strategies that allow us both to preserve our life and limb and get to class as fast as possible. There are two distinct types of street-crossers, or jaywalkers, as is often the case. The Strutters cross the street slowly and confidently, completely ignoring the cars and the color of the light. Strutters seem sure that the cars will stop for them. Their opposites, the Scamperers, wait anxiously for an opening in the flow of traffic and then dart nervously across the street. Scamperers look ridiculous running across intersections on campus and downtown, but somehow it makes them feel safer.
Freshman year, I developed my own technique for safely crossing the street: the Human Shield or Blocker technique. I wait for someone else, either on my side or the opposite side of the street to begin crossing, and then I follow his lead. In the best-case scenario — which is all that has happened so far, knock on wood — oncoming traffic yields for the Blocker. In the worst-case scenario, cars hit the Blocker, not me.
When I am not busy calculating when the gigantic offensive tackle for the football team is about to cross the street, there is one thing I appreciate about being a pedestrian in New Haven: the double or diagonal cross. A beauty of Pythagorean efficiency, the double cross is a highlight of strolling through the Elm City.
But what I like most about walking in New Haven is the experience itself. As my sturdy Saucony sneakers trace the pavement, I begin to connect with the city. Moving slowly both enables and forces me to see the striking contrasts. If I walk along the Old Campus side of College Street, I am faced with giggly freshmen. If I walk the New Haven Green side, I encounter the city’s poor and homeless.
Being a pedestrian is analogous to being a Yale student in New Haven: Both are humbling experiences that provide the opportunity for self-reflection. We are privileged, many of us even a bit spoiled, college students at an Ivy League university. But our campus is located in a struggling industrial city, and each day, when we are approached by homeless panhandlers as we walk to class, we confront the reality that most people are not as fortunate as we are, and some are far less fortunate.
We are faced with a choice. I must confess that sometimes, particularly late at night, I perform what I call the “strategic cross” — traversing the street to avoid a homeless person, particularly the Poetry Lady. But many of us decide to walk toward the city’s challenges, not away from them. According to Dwight Hall’s Web site, “Over 3,000 Yale College students are involved in Dwight Hall-sponsored community service during each academic year, with over 80 percent participating in at least one program before graduation. During last year alone (2003), these volunteers impacted nearly 19,500 people in the state of Connecticut.”
Participating in local social justice at Yale can be a valuable reality check, and I often cite residing in New Haven as one of the advantages of studying here. Princeton students may have the opportunity to stroll to their eating clubs or to Talbots, but they do not walk in stride with the real world.
Living in the Elm City, like being a pedestrian, is an experience I value. Someday, Yale diploma in hand, I will be poised to land a high-paying job, move to the suburbs and buy a BMW. But possessing my own “ultimate driving machine” will be more meaningful knowing what it means to be a pedestrian. So for now, I am happy to walk.
Besides, in New Haven, nothing is very far. It’s only 10 minutes to Hot Tomato’s, BAR or Image, where I can put my driver’s license to very good use.
Emily Fenner is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. She is a former Copy Editor for the News.