When I first moved here from Manhattan, unfailingly I waited at every traffic light for that big red hand to become a fluorescent walking guy.
Joyfully, I conformed to this odd local custom as part of my new L.A. laid-back state of mind…. I’m retired…. Why rush?.…I’m in California now…. Just chill and smell the latte!
An Aquarian to begin with, on top of being a New York Jew, my karma and DNA have always propelled me into acts of non-conformity. So then, after a full year of living here, why do I still submit to these civil restrictions on my inalienable right to move?
Spare me the Social Contract argument— where the local Government institutes an orderly System for traffic control, and individuals conform to that System for the sake of the Common Good. Anyone who thinks about it knows that I serve no “Common Good” standing at 2 AM within the silent moist void on Ocean Park Blvd and Neilson Way, twiddling my thumbs until the light changes.
Should I cross the street even though the light is RED? How do we classify this particular crisis of conscience? Is it existential?… legal?… ethical?… religious?
Rabbi Sanford ben Eichler of Park Slope in Brooklyn taught me the religious solution to this perturbing pedestrian dilemma. In a sudden flash of inspiration, he received the definitive answer one fall afternoon while walking in Prospect Park — “STOP ON THE RED. GO ON THE GREEN.”
And from that ancient Truth, my dear Rabbi Ben practiced what he preached— religiously. You can only imagine how maddening it was to go out on a walk with him in the City. He stopped and I had to wait. He closed his eyes to reflect on a positive thought, and I prayed for the light to change. He meditated in peace, and I whined about “wasting time.”
After my rabbi and friend died, I thought of him fondly at intersections throughout Manhattan, but I was no follower of his religious practice—until I moved to Santa Monica. Somehow, momentum from the respected observance here of stopping on red and going on green has made it easier for me to put into practice my rabbi’s spiritual instruction.
The question for me at the crosswalk is no longer to cross or not to cross but, “What is trying to distract me from being in the Moment?”
Rabbi Sanford ben Eichler is a composite character based on my real rabbi and my late high school buddy, Ben. It was he who actually introduced me to his commitment to “STOP ON RED. GO ON GREEN.” Ben, however, was an atheist. He developed this practice, as he told me, to strengthen his self-discipline while he was training himself to stop smoking.
Howard Martin Katzoff is a retired New York City English teacher, Drama teacher and District Arts Coordinator. Writing has been his hobby since he could scribble scrabble on any paper he could get his hands on AS A KID. He surpassed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour mark for mastery 20 years ago. He lives in Santa Monica and continues to work with schools as an arts integration specialist.
The social contract is only a part of it. We’re taught as children to wait our turn. Would you push past a person waiting in line at the grocery store? No, you’d get popped in the mouth.
Here in SM I observe people crossing against the light all the time, and crossing mid-block or diagonally. They don’t look, they don’t hesitate, and they’re often on the phone or have earbuds on.
Worse, folks on bicycles and scooters weave up and down onto the sidewalk, drive on the wrong side of the road and make turns and lane-changes that could politely be referred to as creative.
Motorists are just as bad. They drive right through stop signs and red lights. They make last-minute lane changes. They ignore pedestrians who are following the rules, and don’t allow them to cross.
They also keep going as a light turns yellow, and even red. They’re cutting in line, too, because the drivers who’ve been waiting their turn to make a left miss their turn. So they get angry and turn when their light is clearly red. Which then endangers pedestrians, cutting in front of them when it’s their turn.
See how it all goes around?
The problem is people who don’t politely wait their turn. No matter what their mode of transportation. It’s a matter of knowing how to behave. And that’s where the social contract comes in.
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