In 480 BC, King Xerxes of Persia led a gigantic army toward Greece, hoping to conquer it. All he had to do was get his forces across a narrow strait of water, the Hellespont, and they’d be in Europe, where they could have their way with the scattered city-states of Greece.
But the Hellespont refused to cooperate. Its brisk winds and choppy waters foiled Xerxes’ attempts to span it with pontoon bridges. Humiliated and in a rage, he ordered his men to strike the waters with their whips three hundred times. Xerxes wanted, somehow, to punish an inanimate object for its failure to do what he wished.
This came to mind recently while I watched an automobile being whipped by a blind pedestrian.
If you’re leaving Los Angeles’s Braille Institute by car, you emerge from the underground parking garage, turn right onto New Hampshire Avenue, then right again at the Monroe Street dogleg. Monroe intersects Vermont Avenue at the end of the block, and if you want to make a right turn onto Vermont, especially when your stoplight is red, you’ll find a few complications. First, many pedestrians — both from Braille to the south and L.A. City College to the north — cross at that intersection. Second, auto traffic on Vermont can be heavy. And third, the view up Vermont Avenue is impeded by bus-bench shelters, advertising signs, light poles, trees, etc.
I’ve volunteered at Braille for a quarter century, and during nearly all that time I’ve turned left from Monroe onto Vermont. Recently, though, I moved across town, and nowadays I turn right.
About 3:20 p.m. I drove up to this intersection in a line of cars, just missing the green light. I knew there’d be a couple of minutes’ wait until the next green. Near me in line was a large pickup filled with burly construction workers from the building project at the south end of the LACC campus. The workers didn’t look too patient. Strangely, there were no pedestrians at the moment; from the north, traffic poured toward us in a thick stream. We all wanted to make that right turn and get on with our lives, and the only obstacle was the heavy traffic.
At this point, everything started to go haywire. The car in front signaled a right turn, then edged into the intersection, partially blocking the crosswalk. The driver was trying to get a better view of oncoming traffic. Out of nowhere, a blind pedestrian appeared, heading north from Braille toward the crosswalk. The pedestrian, holding a cane but not using it to sweep for obstacles, was on a collision course with the car.
I recognized the pedestrian, a middle-aged, blind Braille student and volunteer who, I know from experience, has a bit of a temper. Proper cane technique involves a steady forward sweeping and tapping to detect objects in the walker’s path, but the volunteer merely held the cane like a mace, making no effort to use it as a detector. There was no way the volunteer would know about the interposed car until it was too late.
The blind volunteer stepped into the crosswalk and marched right into the car’s front-right quarter panel. Knees bumped metal, and the force of motion pushed the volunteer’s body forward over the hood of the car. The volunteer raised back up and, in a rage, struck the car’s hood with an open hand, then used the cane as a cudgel to swing at the car, striking it more than once on the nose.
Now the driver backed up — barely avoiding the pickup behind it — and the blind pedestrian had an open path once again. Our volunteer crossed with great dignity, and, after clearing the car, used the cane to make one last strike at the vehicle.
The entire incident was over in seconds, much less time than it takes to describe. Yet it left me slackjawed, partly from surprise and partly from a guilty admiration for the blind pedestrian’s spunk.
And then it nagged at me. Clearly the driver was wrong to pull into the crosswalk. But our volunteer had no right to administer street justice — to vandalize the car — simply because it caused a moment’s embarrassing inconvenience. Besides, what if the car had contained the workers from the construction project? Would they have sat placidly by while a pedestrian pounded on their pickup? In this society, you don’t touch a young man’s car, much less beat on it with a stick. I imagined the workers leaping from the truck, grabbing our pedestrian by the lapels, throwing the person down against the truck, and beating the ever-lovin’ Christmas out of the poor soul.
Or perhaps they wouldn’t. Perhaps blind pedestrians are immunized by their disability, and the workers would stay their hands out of respect. But again, nobody assaults a young man’s car without a fight. So it’s hard to tell which way it would go.
Okay, it’s time for a confession. The car that got whipped was my own. I was the driver at fault; I was the one who encroached on the intersection, trying to make a right turn against a red light; I was the one whose car caused the blind pedestrian to stumble and suffer public humiliation. And now I own a car with a small dent in the hood from the hand strike, along with a couple of scratches to the paint from the cane blows.
Should I confront the pedestrian, next time our paths cross at Braille? I think not. I can fix the damage to the car, but it would be hard to repair the damage to our otherwise good relationship, once the person knows whose car got whipped. The volunteer would feel compelled to defend the action, rather than suffer further humiliation, and I’d end up forever the bad guy in the volunteer’s mind. I don’t think I can win this one.
I’ve learned my lesson. That intersection inspires new respect. But what did the blind student-volunteer learn? The volunteer got clean away with it, administering violent discipline with no consequences. What if, next time, this individual chooses the wrong car to whip? Unlike Xerxes, our angry pedestrian won’t have a massive army for protection.