Pedestrian Approaches to Life and Death (Ghosts Included)

May 2012

In crossing a street one might look both ways, or — a popular New York approach — simply step into the street or indeed start crossing it, leaving it for others, oncoming drivers included, to watch out for you. An observer may be impressed by the riskiness of this approach and also about its efficacy. Most of the time, if not quite always, others will stop or swerve to avoid hitting pedestrians who appear not to be paying any attention.

In recent years a third approach has developed. While walking, pedestrians are talking on their “mobile devices,” or getting their messages, texting, playing electronic games. An observer may see them coming to a curb and simply stepping into the street without raising their heads or taking their eyes off their devices. But in a certain sense these pedestrians are not being bold or reckless, mocking death or oblivious to their surroundings. In a certain sense they are not pedestrians and their surroundings are not the particular streets and sidewalks on which they might be observed, but rather the corner of cyberspace that is absorbing all their attention.

I shall leave it to readers to extrapolate from these three approaches their own conclusions as regards less pedestrian aspects of life. As regards myself, often while riding my bike around New York City I have had the thought that my death was going to come one day while my gaze lingered on an attractive female pedestrian. And this thought has often quickly led to another: the first thought will likely prove to have been yet another romantic fantasy. The circumstances of my death may well be neither glorious nor well justified, though they could involve less gore than getting mashed by a speeding car while my head is delightfully turned.


It has seemed, later, that this short piece deserved a coda. In discussing Don DeLillo’s 1977 novel Players, the American literary critic and curmudgeon John W. Aldridge once wrote of an “underlying disorder, the slow death of human feeling as the connections between people and the environment they move through, but do not inhabit, become increasingly official and mechanical, forcing them to seek refuge from a state of external abstractedness in equally abstracting diversions and trivial games.” In 2012, from within the belly of the beast, as it were, I would move from this and similar observations to a question:

What does it feel like—for you and me, here and now—to live in a world in which so many pedestrians, drivers, parents, children—so many of the seeming human beings around us, and perhaps we ourselves as well—have become avatars or ghosts, our bodies but half hiding the fact that, carried away by modern technology and by fears of life and of death, our spirits are wandering in a parallel universe?

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