Volume 78 - Number 42 / March 25 -31, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Mixed signals: A conflicted metaphor for New York

By Emily Voigt

Spring is here, which means that soon, I will be closing my bedroom window. I only sleep with it open during the coldest months, pushing it up against the grip of frost, despite the rumbling bellies of the delivery trucks that idle in front of the supermarket across the street. I do this because the heating system in my building is, like so many in New York, overzealous. But as the icy wind whistles through my bedroom, rattling my closet door — behind which a down comforter is reserved for the season of air conditioning — I always feel like something is backwards, mixed up, disjunctive.

It was around this time of year, in December, that I first noticed the epidemic of broken crosswalk signals around my neighborhood in Greenwich Village. On these malfunctioning lights, the red hand appeared illuminated alongside the white walking figure — two pictograms, never supposed to meet, suddenly cohabiting the same claustrophobic box. They reminded me of ill-matched roommates paired via Craigslist, or the city itself, in which an unlikely assortment of souls coexist side by side.

At first sight, I presumed one of these broken signals meant “stop.” The man behind me assumed it meant “go.” And we had the pedestrian equivalent of a fender bender, as his foot pulled the shoe off my heel.

But this kind of kerfuffle appeared to be an exception. For the most part, people didn’t seem all that confused by the affected intersections. They simply sized up whether traffic was coming, then crossed the street.

It struck me that New Yorkers are used to processing mixed messages. We have restaurants so crowded that no one goes there. Yankee great Yogi Berra told us this — even if he actually didn’t.

Our wealthiest friends have the least comfortable couches. Our iconic skyline is best seen from New Jersey. And it’s a cliche to observe that our city has as much of a reputation for making people as it does for breaking them — that the deepest kind of loneliness may only be possible among 8 million neighbors.

  A decade ago, when I moved here, I used to tune in to the radio program “Live From City Hall” with Rudy Giuliani, to listen to the mayor berate the very constituents he had started a call-in show to woo.

“There is something really very, very sad about you,” Mr. Giuliani told David from Oceanside, who phoned in that summer to protest the citywide ban on ferrets. “This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness.”

I’ve since grown accustomed to the ways in which New Yorkers can be like auto-antonyms, words that mean one thing as well as the opposite. They cleave together — through displays of amiable hostility and begrudging affection — even as they veer apart.

But sometimes it’s a challenge to make sense of these mixed signals.

A few years ago, I lived in a building on 15th St., where someone would invariably appear behind me as I was putting my keys in the front door. I frequently didn’t recognize the person, but most of the time I held the door anyway and rode the elevator, jittery and watchful. When I heard that a junkie had been living beneath the stairwell, I worried that perhaps I had been the one letting him in.

One winter night, when a thickly bundled figure, hunched and laden with bags, followed me up the stoop, I decided to stop.

“Excuse me,” I said, turning around. “Do you live here?”

“No,” said the shadowy figure, whose face was a sea of wrinkles.

“Then I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t let you in.”

Just then, a middle-aged couple I recognized from another floor came rushing out of the building.

“Grandma!” said the man. “You can’t carry all that stuff! You’re supposed to be waiting in the car.”

The mortification burned on my face as the four of us rode the elevator together. I remember learning that the bundled woman had recently been widowed, or perhaps she had been sick. In either case, her grandson had insisted that she come stay for a while. When I apologized for not holding the door, she said: “Oh no, you can never be too careful…”

“Of marauding grannies,” added the man.

I thought about this incident the other day when I noticed an unsettling item in The Villager’s police blotter. A man, “naked except for sweatpants,” had jumped out from beneath the stairwell inside a nearby apartment building and chased a young woman, who fortunately proved faster. I wondered if someone like me had held the door for the man.

This winter, pedestrians all over the city, from Brooklyn to the Bronx, reported seeing the conflicting crosswalk signals. The problem seemed to be particularly bad throughout the Village. Some 5,000 of the malfunctioning lights had to be repaired, according to the Department of Transportation.

In online forums on the topic, I noticed a sentiment emerge that New Yorkers are too cool to rely on these signals, even when they function as they should.

“The crosswalk signs have finally caught on to the fact that you’re just going to do whatever the [heck] you want to anyway,” observed one Gothamist reader, employing a saltier word than “heck” for emphasis.

“The only people who pay attention to the signs are tourists,” someone else commented on The New York Times’s City Room blog.

I’ve always shrunken from this kind of condescension toward outsiders. It’s yet another paradoxical truth that those with the deepest allegiance to the city’s cosmopolitan coolness risk becoming the most provincial.

My father, visiting me recently, was surprised to see that several of the broken signals still weren’t fixed. He told me that my mother had found them confusing when they were in town together the previous month.

“She wouldn’t cross,” he said, “until I told her what they meant.”

“What do they mean?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Proceed with caution,” he said and strode into the street.

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