In a now famous address to the graduating class of a major American university, the late, great writer David Foster Wallace made a joke. Of course, it wasn’t funny in the usual sense; it was more, shall we say, funny in a philosophical sense. It goes something like this; two young fish are swimming in one direction and they meet another, much older fish. In passing, the older fish says hi, and by the way, don’t forget the water. The young fish swim on; then one turns to the other and asks ‘what’s water?’.
The point of this joke is subtle and the more you think about it, the more you realize that forgetting the ‘water’ is something we are all prone to doing. Take pedestrians. Everybody gets to be a pedestrian at one point or another, almost every day. Yet hardly anyone worries about themselves as a ‘pedestrian’ at all, much less as a pedestrian who might need to be thought about.
If you lived in my neighborhood, beautiful, upscale and very busy South Granville in Vancouver, British Columbia, you might just do that. I live half a block from a very busy feeder street coming off a major bridge, and I have to cross it every day on my way to shopping, buses, banks and so on. It’s always an adventure because I never know what mood the city’s drivers will be in. I’m tall and dress in bright colours, so it’s really impossible to miss me, but on a ‘bad water’ day, I’m invisible. I can stand for minutes at a time, waiting for traffic to subside before I feel confident enough to venture out. Usually, I wait until there’s a red light at the end of the block, so the drivers won’t get too annoyed with me for slowing them down.
I can tell when they get mad because they slow down barely enough to let me by and then resume their speed before slamming on the brakes when they get to the light. Makes one wonder where they learned to drive. It’s a game of chicken; if I walk slowly enough, will they hit me? Or stop, like they are required to do?
On good days, the drivers see me standing there, perched on the edge of the sidewalk, almost on the street–and they stop! Sometimes two or three of them, all together. I walk across, waving and smiling at them because they let me live a little longer. Well, that sounds kind of melodramatic, but that’s how it feels. I imagine that the drivers that stop are the ones who haven’t forgotten that they, too, are sometimes pedestrians. The others clearly have; they have forgotten the ‘water’, what it feels like to be in it, of it.
Maybe what we need is a general reappraisal of the place of the car in our society. Because it seems to me that as of now, the car is ‘the water’, not us poor peds. And we don’t even know it.