Of Slime and Sidewalks.

What we can learn from Ghostbusters II

Much ado lately has been given to the phenomenon of sidewalk rage—that’s like road rage, but with walkers. (Hence its even more pervasive presence in big cities than real road rage.) It’s hardly a new phenomenon, anger at your fellow pedestrian citizens, but the idea really seemed to take root with a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal about scientists who were “seeking insights on anger’s origins and coping techniques” using sidewalk rage as their point of study. As I read the piece, the signs of anger on the sidewalk—muttering and bumping into people; hogging walking lanes with abandon; staring or glaring at slow walkers—began to sound less like the description of a social phenomenon than it did a crystal clear description of Philadelphia and her narrow sidewalks.

And also of me.

I wondered how I’d look to scientists if they were studying my sidewalk behavior: My weapons of choice aren’t muttering or nasty looks (I prefer the eye-roll and the heavy sigh), but my triggers are pretty much textbook:

  1. Slow walkers who weave about, making it impossible to pass.
  2. Groups of walkers who form horizontal lines, like a wall, making it impossible to pass. (Often teenagers.)
  3. People who smoke while they walk.
  4. People who smoke cigars while they walk.
  5. People who spit anything, anywhere but a trashcan.
  6. People with clipboards asking me if I have time for the children. The whales. Human rights. Etc.
  7. Nearby cars that block the box. Which might just be a variant strain of road rage (empathetic road rage?). But still—rage.

One recent sleepless night, I flipped on the TV and found Ghostbusters II. Remember that movie? Where the pink slime kept growing and growing and taking over New York City? The evil slime that made people angry and hateful? (Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?) I hadn’t seen that movie in about a million years, and I had forgotten that while the slime made people angry, it also fed and grew on anger. The city’s aggregate anger, in the form of pink goo, was overtaking everything. The angrier they got, the more slime there was, which just made them angrier. At 2 a.m., it all seemed quite profound.

If I were being studied, I suspect I wouldn’t like to see my angry sidewalk self on paper any more than I’d like to see the rest of the thinly veiled hostility on the sidewalks. (Or not-so-thinly veiled: I once heard about one of those clipboard kids getting spit on.) The WSJ scientists suggest that we all envision everyone who breaks sidewalk etiquette as lost—which might work, I suppose. (People who are lost, aged, impaired, or be-strollered are automatic exceptions to sidewalk etiquette, at least in my book.)

On a recent trip to Chicago, it was hard not to notice by how chill the sidewalk culture was. Some people walked fast; some people didn’t. I saw nary a stink-eye or a shove, and the one person who bumped into me apologized. It struck me that the City of Brotherly Love could take a lesson in chilling out from this massive Midwestern city—which seems to have already learned what the scientists say the true solution to sidewalk rage is: just calming the hell down.

Angry thinking, the scientists say, becomes a habit, and the more often we’re angry, the more often we’re impaired by our anger (and here, the more often we’re maligned by the media for it, too)—and the more likely we are to experience problems with our hearts, problems with our blood pressure, and problems with angry slime bubbling just beneath the surface, waiting to take over the city.