Sometimes I feel like going through the streets of London is like being a high school quarterback. Of course, that experience is not one that is unique on the field. Dodging individuals trying to make out in the middle of the pathway or young mothers suddenly stopping to grab their children by the hand before they totter away can be equally as dangerous as trying to beat the clock for that last-minute touchdown.
London is considered by many to be the most civilized and, oddly enough, the most advanced city in the world. And, looking at the city as a whole on a good day, this is largely true. You can top up your cell phone at any ATM, the trains run on time (as long as you fit into the ideal London body), you can go through your day relatively smoothly with your iPod in your ears and your purse in your hand, conducting business on the go, dropping into Fleet Street when necessary, and jumping on the train just before the door closes to make the most of time. **
Oddly enough, with all this advancement and adaptation that is supposed to make life go as smooth as the silk of a new White House/Black Market dress, we’ve lost something. As human beings in London, we have lost the entire skill of spatial awareness. The irony is, of course, Westerners, particularly British Westerners, in comparison to most cultures, feel the necessity of a relatively large amount of personal space. With this notion, one would assume, comes the ability to remain extremely well placed in the environment. Not so.
It would be easy for me to say that American tourists are the worst. And they are pretty bad – don’t get me wrong. As an American, myself, I often groan at the middle-aged woman in khaki shorts with her fanny pack with her flat drawl that can only come from Minnesota. She is in London to experience culture, and as such, she’s doing her best to herd her children like a flock of geese. In doing so, of course, she is completely oblivious to those of us who still have to work on a 9 to 5 job while she is on vacation.
But it does not end with the tourists. It doesn’t end with the individuals trying to get that perfect shot of Big Ben when they might just as easily hop into a local newspaper agent and get one ten times better. It doesn’t stop with Regent’s Park where the young people make out freely. It doesn’t even stop in Covent Garden where the mixture of bipeds and motorists proves to be so deadly that no law can dare define the area. No, it doesn’t stop there. Londoners will take their half out of the middle as much as Americans. I stop in awkward spots as much, if not more than the young couple across the street wanting to show off their make-out skills. And sometimes, just sometimes, the fact that millions of us are trying to go in completely opposite directions backfires in a way that can only be described as inner-London traffic.
Getting around in London should really be the new Olympic sport for 2012. It can be called “urban slalom,” and you lose points for every biker you hit, every time you disrupt the flow, and maybe even gain a few points for every time you dodge out in front of an oncoming car, knowing full well that you have plenty of time and ample speed to be across by the time he reaches the crosswalk. The British, of course, would have the home court advantage and make sure that even a New Yorker would get a run for his money. I might just be the champion as I dodge and ram, predicting an entire sidewalks’ move and how to avoid a lawsuit while going at top speeds with a 500 pound electric wheelchair. It’s as much art and skill as it is athletics and critical thinking, and I challenge anyone who thinks they can master the London sidewalks to do it in an electric wheelchair.
Today I found myself in Cambridge Circus, one of my most dreaded areas where Charing Cross meets Tottenham Court Road in an utter mess of confusion and terrible planning. Getting through the crosswalk of Cambridge Circus proves to be the most annoying endeavor in the entire city as buses tend to enjoy stopping for the light directly over the crosswalk, thereby blocking the wheelchair ramp to cross. Sunglasses on, my iPod in my ears to ensure that nothing would annoy me and I could have a completely private walk in a city of millions, I waited for the stoplight to turn and the crosswalk not to be blocked. Finally an African woman took my hand just as the light was about to change back to “don’t walk.”
“Come on, honey. We’re going.”
And with that, she held her hand in front of the oncoming taxi to make sure they would continue to stay still even after the light had changed so I could get across with a clear shot.
Then again, there are some times where you need a city full of strangers just to get by.