As Funny as a Traffic Light
(for Bernie DeKoven
Sometimes glee lights up in the unlikeliest, most mundane of places.
I was waiting to cross an intersection, behind a couple of pedestrians. We waited and waited, yet the contrarian crosswalk signal kept playing a game of chicken with us. Law-abiding citizens, we remained standing at the curb, even though the traffic on either side was similarly frozen with red lights. The pedestrians in front of me pressed the crosswalk button repeatedly, to no avail. As the seconds marched on, we all began to feel silly just standing there. It was technically safe to cross, and we could feel deference to authority giving over to a craving for self-determination.
As simple as their signals may be on the surface, traffic lights are so inscrutable. How intelligent and authoritative are they really? They might be hooked up to high-tech sensors and networks (some are, surely), but then again any one traffic light might be decades behind the times. We know that some traffic lights are so smart and witty that they have their own Twitter accounts. (A light on Michigan Avenue in Chicago tweets such wisecracks as, "I don't believe in false starts," "I hear your prayers, and I answer either 'yes' or 'wait,'" "They say we're all connected," "We have to stop meeting like this," and "From my vantage point, you've already involved the cops." No kidding: https://twitter.com/#!/ChiTrafficLight
). We're left wondering if a non-responsive light is broken ("on the blink," as it were), or if we're being challenged by unknown forces to throw caution to the wind.
As if of one mind, the pedestrians in front of me and I finally had enough of this Kafkaesque stalemate. We stepped forward and boldly crossed that street in defiance of the laws of man and God. And as our feet came down on that first step, the crosswalk signal glowed "WALK." And the pedestrians in front of me burst out laughing. They laughed, and they laughed, and they laughed as they completed their crossing. And still they laughed. "The light was red!" the man cackled. "Then it turned green!" the woman cackled back. When she'd finally caught her breath, the woman made a phone call to share what apparently had been the funniest experience of their lives. "We were standing there," she explained, "and then we started walking ... and the light changed!" But she couldn't explain further, as once again she was overcome with tearful hilarity.
There's a Zen koan in there somewhere: "What's the humor of one light changing?" The pedestrians howled on, and their laughter was contagious. I walked on home, chuckling to myself, with a definite spring in my step. I'd crossed paths with folks who don't want
to have fun but who embrace life's subtlest perversities with gusto.