Waiting for the Light

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I wait for the light to change. Every time. I hit the scuffed but still reflective silvery button and then stare at the other traffic light waiting for it to go from green to yellow to red and then for the hand to turn into the little walking avatar. Every morning. Every evening. Every time I’m walking across the street from the parking garage to the hospital or back.

This is not really a normal thing to do in Baltimore. I’m in no way accustomed to seeing, well, anyone else do this. I occasionally get little looks while I’m standing there on the corner and others are crossing the street. “I guess he’s waiting for someone,” I imagine they’re thinking. In most cases, I doubt it even occurs to them that I’m standing there waiting for the proper crossing signal before I step into the street.

I don’t do this out of any overdeveloped sense of needing to follow the rules. I mean, I definitely have an overdeveloped sense of needing to follow the rules, but that’s not my reason for waiting for the light to change. I’m a trauma surgeon, and I really don’t want to be hit by a car. Apart from the obvious physical pain and potential mortality, I assume it would be inordinately embarrassing for a trauma surgeon to be struck by vehicle while jaywalking.

Though it’s not like I really believe most people are likely to be hit by a car while crossing against the light. I know of no randomized controlled trials comparing looking both ways to using instructional signage. Blindly crossing with the light, given the certainty that some driver will eventually miss their own signal, is unlikely to be an improvement over looking both ways and stepping into the intersection even while that orange hand is still glowing. (Of course, the opposite may be true for many of us; in my sleep-deprived or Twitter-distracted state, I am as likely to overlook an oncoming car as its driver is to miss a red light.) So, while I fully support programs encouraging injury prevention, I don’t ask others to wait for the light like I do, I don’t shake my head at the people who cross without waiting for the signal to change (well, everyone), roll my eyes, or give them dirty looks. Indeed, I don’t even think to myself that they shouldn’t be crossing; I’m much more likely to consider myself ridiculous for not joining them.

So a strange thing happened as I approached that familiar crosswalk yesterday afternoon. No one else was there, and there wasn’t any traffic. I leaned on the chrome button and then tapped it a few extra times with my thumb, as usual wondering about the source of the so-obviously-wrong-that-it-could-actually-be-true old legend that requesting the signal change more than once in fact caused it to respond more slowly. Someone stepped up next to me. I don’t know if she was a hospital employee, student, patient, or just passerby. She stood there looking across the street. I checked; I still didn’t see any oncoming cars.

Someone else stopped and stood there with us. None of us speaking, at least two of the triumvirate at any point looking at our phones, neither hurried nor loitering, almost certainly appearing to the ever present hospital security guard and to the drivers waiting at the light on the cross street like we were up to no good (starting to make trouble in the neighborhood).

At this point, the story would be much more powerful if a car came barrelling around the corner, driver not paying a great deal of attention, driving straight through the crosswalk where would have been standing. I’d imagine what could’ve been, blood in the street, limbs mangled, feet pointing directions feet aren’t supposed to point. There would be shock both hemorrhagic and neurologic, anguish both physical and mental. Someone would be crying, though probably not me.

But no, there was no careening auto, no imagined accident, no devastating scenario set in my mind. Sure enough, not a single car passed down the (in fact, one-way) street we were waiting to cross before the signal changed to that albino perambulating all-clear icon encouraging us to step safely into the crosswalk. We stepped over to the opposite corner uneventfully, most of us off our phones, and went on our respective ways.

The moment had an immediate impact on me, though I still don’t know what exactly the impact meant. I thought briefly of the standard Ghandi “be the change” mantra (no, I’m not getting into the argument about whether the quote is accurate), but I can’t remotely suggest my vision for the betterment of humanity includes patiently and silently awaiting a marginally safer trip across the road. I considered a comment on the need to set a good example, as a physician, as an educator, ensuring I’m demonstrating that it’s possible to care for patients well without yelling at residents or being unbearable, but I don’t believe doing so silently is enough; those of us who attempt such things need to evangelize about them, to encourage others to do the same. I struggled to find meaning in this momentary connection, apparently simultaneously mundane and profound, with others who inexplicably chose to wait for the light.

As usual, the enlightenment came when I removed myself from the center of the scene. I’ve no real reason to think my unintroduced friends were intentionally or subconsciously following my example. I was there first, which almost never has the importance we tend to place upon it. Rather than being the leader, the pathfinder, the iconoclast, I was a guy standing on the sidewalk. A small number of people made the same decision I did, either out of habit and practice or spuriously for no real reason. Perhaps they had some of the same thoughts I did, perhaps not. For about 20 seconds, though, at the corner of Monument and Rutland, regardless of feeling ridiculous, being stared at, failing to understand our own minds, or even being entirely oblivious, we had something in common.

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