I was born in New York City. I live and work in New York City. And for as long as I can remember, New Yorkers have complained about the hordes of tourists that descend upon Manhattan during the holiday season.
The reason is not because they wear brightly colored clothes and we all wear black. The reason is not because they are the only ones who patronize three card monte dealers in Times Square. The reason is not even that you can't get close to a counter in Saks Fifth Avenue to buy your wife a Christmas present.
The reason is: they don't know how to walk.
Of course, they put one foot in front of another. They manage to stay upright. They are ambulatory. But they move very, very slowly; they look up in the air; and most frustrating of all, they walk abreast. All of the other things are tolerable but that.
Here's what I mean. New York sidewalks are about eight feet wide. And there you are, walking up Madison Avenue and coming in the opposite direction is a family from Omaha, Nebraska, mother, father, three children, walking five across, taking up the whole sidewalk, so that anyone who wants to get by must either trudge into the street, hug the wall of a building, or bust through like a fullback on third and two.
And none of those options is very appealing.
I understand that Omaha is in the Great Plains, where space is not at a premium. You can pirouette down the sidewalk in Omaha if you want to. But space is limited here in New York City. And no New Yorker ever walks more than two abreast; even if you're in a group of ten people, you'll walk in five pairs, not ten across. Or even better, single file.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not a chauvinistic New Yorker. That Woody Allen superciliousness thing is old hat and was wrong-headed to begin with. I despise the smugness of New Yorkers who think they live in the center of the universe, who think that all knowledge resides on this little island. New York is on the edge, not in the center; it's an anomaly, not the norm.
But we do know how to walk. And on a planet that is getting increasingly crowded, taking up less space is a virtue. In fact, taking up less space is a form of courtesy. It's allowing others to have room. Hogging space is a way of saying, "Where I am is more important than where you are." It's self-important and rude.
You can tell a lot about someone from the way they walk.
George W. Bush has a puffed-up cock-of-the-walk strut. For people who think he's a little too full of himself, his walk is further evidence. Al Gore leans slightly forward and barrels along without looking sideways, which gives people the idea that he's not much of a lateral thinker. Bill Clinton has a galumphing, knock-kneed stride that explains why, as a 6' 2" 200 lb. high-school student in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was in the band rather than on the football team. The camera shot of him walking by himself steely-jawed and deeply self-conscious along a narrow hallway into the Democratic convention was one of the most hilarious minutes of television I've ever seen.
So, watch for the way people walk. See who takes up too much space, and who minds his own business. And if you're in New York, hold hands if you must, walk single file if you can, but never, never walk three across.