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Wait for the white man

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Security guards were hanging out at the corner of Blackwell and Pettigrew streets in Durham last week, palm-sized steno pads in hand, their pages crammed with hash marks in black ink. I overheard one of them discussing the problem of jaywalking with a couple of passersby.

"Can you get in trouble for jaywalking?" one pedestrian asked.

"Sure you can. The police can ticket you if they catch you," the guard replied, eyeing me as I, well, jaywalked toward the American Tobacco Campus.

For months, I had climbed the old wooden stairs of the Norfolk Southern property up to, and over, the railroad tracks to work. But since I heard that police were ticketing people who trespassed there, I have been traversing Blackwell and Pettigrew instead. Every day I admire an old surveyor's marker at the corner, engraved with the date 1959, and tap it for good luck. And then, I jaywalk.

The guards have been instructed (by whom, I don't know) to count the number of pedestrians crossing legally and illegally. So far, the tally is running heavily in favor of "illegal," the guard said, her steno pad as evidence.

I learned about the rules of street safety in kindergarten, but I felt confused about "crossing with the light." Everyone who attended Sulphur Springs School was a hayseed. Of the hamlets we students came from—Sulphur Springs, Honey Creek, Mechanicsburg and Middletown—only Middletown had stoplights, exactly two of them. They blinked red on two sidse and yellow on the others. To us country kids, jaywalking felt like a cultural abstraction, as foreign as the navigation of Venetian canals by gondola.

Those years spent walking barefoot down dirt roads—County Road 850 West was not paved until the 1980s—likely formed my adult views on jaywalking. It is not a crime, but a sign of independence. Walk when there are no cars coming. Don't walk when there are. I'm capable of deciding.

Some of us apparently are not. One man crossed in front of a car on Pettigrew just as the light turned green. In the two minutes or so that I stood there, waiting to cross legally, at least five people jaywalked. The guard drew at least five hashmarks in the tiny steno pad. I told the guard that since the Durham Bulls opening night was that evening, and the Full Frame Documentary Festival started that day, hundreds of people would be crossing that intersection. A second, even a third, steno pad might be necessary.

Just then, two more men sauntered across the intersection. No cars were coming in either direction, so they were not in harm's way.

"Don't be jaywalking, now!" the guard advised a man who crossed while the red hand on the sign was static. "Wait for the white man."

"This is America," the man replied. And he kept on walking.

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