Sometimes crossing the street in New York City is a flirtation with disaster. Times Square is a far more dangerous neighborhood than many. The volume of foot traffic, taxis, delivery trucks, police and emergency vehicles — it’s overwhelming.
Whether the pedestrians are tourists or business people, most of them can’t be bothered to get off their cell phones or stop texting or look away from the person they’re telling such an important story to wait a sec, yo, you gotta hear this, wait a sec, dude! — or even to follow traffic signals. Look both ways before crossing the street? We gave up that bunk back on Sesame Street. This is New York City, baby!
That’s not to say pedestrians are always at fault. Walkers rule over drivers in a lot of ways in New York. Sometimes traveling on foot really is faster. And if it’s not, dammit, I’ll make it faster. I gotta get across the street now! So of course sometimes the motorists, the cabbies, the cops consider it their duty to educate pedestrians by giving them a horn-honking thrill, making a thinly veiled threat. My friend calls cabs “yellow flying death.”
On a rainy night this week, leaving work for the bus back to Philadelphia, I wove through clusters of spiked umbrellas and danced around puddles to cross 7th Avenue… Broadway… to the opposite corner… toward 8th Avenue. And freedom. There were fewer people out than normal because of the rain. But also because of the rain, the reconstituted city filth made any sidewalk and street an oil slick.
A very specific sequence of sounds occurs when a moving car strikes a human body. Even if you’ve never heard them before, even if you don’t witness it with your eyes, they’re distinct enough that you know instantly what is happening when you hear them. It’s not a cracking of bones. It’s not a splash of blood and wet parts.
It’s a quick squeal, a dull ineffectual thud, a grunt. But not a hard grunt. Not an oooofff!. What I heard was more like a surrender. An emphatic, involuntary whimper — huuuuungh — as the wind is knocked out of a body.
Then I heard a woman scream.
Oh my god!
Oh my gooooood!
It was a primal, death-fearing scream. I could hear memories in that scream. Years of a life lived in that scream. Chemicals surging to the brain and electrifying the body, upending the world in that scream.
Through the sequence I quickened my pace. Don’t want to see it. Don’t want to see it. Do’wannaseeit. But some species of morbid curiosity forced me to turn around. Who screamed? Why? How bad was it?
It seemed to me at first that the woman who screamed was a stranger on the sidewalk having an empathetic reaction. Mine was to nearly vomit between my feet. Hers was to stand on the corner and shriek in horror.
Then I saw a woman rushing into the street. It seemed to me she was rushing back. I couldn’t know for sure, but the mind constructs a narrative. It has to make sense somehow. Someone might be dead, and by god, it had better make sense.
Maybe she had been walking just a few paces in front of her companion. They were just crossing the street on a red. No big deal. Just hurry. They’ll stop. I have life insurance, LOL. Twenty people were also doing it. He’s just behind me. Wait til we get to the other side of the street and I’ll finish my thought. Perfectly safe. Right?
No! Oh my god! Oh my gooooood!
And there it was. She was running back to her companion. A father. An uncle. A brother. An adult male, from what I could tell, was on the ground. Some lights were flashing. Traffic was stopped on 44th Street. Those Times Square cops move fast.
In a crowd of people, some get out of the way fast enough, and some do not. This guy did not. A dozen others or more were stopped to look. It seemed disrespectful to gawk, so I moved on. More people were stopping. Squawking. Gawking. What to do? What to do?
I turned and looked again, closing my umbrella.
A couple of women were crouching down at his side. He wasn’t moving. Then — praise Jesus — he was moving! OK. He has people with him. He looked disoriented. I imagined them explaining what had happened. Lie still. Help is coming.
Satisfied that he was with people who could help, enough people, satisfied that I was not needed, I turned back to my course. I was running late for my bus. He’ll be fine.