Helplessness at a busy crosswalk
November 13, 2012 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me identify a 25+ year-old short story that describes someone unable to cross a city street?

This has been haunting me for years. I have no idea how central it was to the plot, but in the scene I recall, the narrator describes someone with a developmental disability standing at a busy street corner, wanting desperately to cross, but unable to because he/she can't understand how the WALK/DON'T WALK signal works. I believe the story described how the people and traffic all kept ebbing and flowing around the character while he/she was frozen on the spot, possibly crying. I don't think there was any kind of resolution.

If I had to guess, I would say the character was a woman in her late teens or early 20s with an old-fashioned (possibly hand-me-down?) pocketbook and wearing or carrying a hat, and I think it was set in a women-typically-wearing-hats era, probably the 1950s.

I read this in a public U.S. middle school/junior high in 1985, and I believe it was just a passing scene in an anthology of some kind, possibly a "language arts" textbook... or maybe just something I found at the library that was not actually age-appropriate.

Does that ring any bells, even faint ones? I can't tell you how much it would mean to me to track this down after all these years.
posted by argonauta to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Just making sure this is not from Free to Be... You And Me? There is a notable story in there that shares some of the characteristics [the first time, the crying, the paralysis] but other parts don't [the age/gender/disability aspect of i]. That story is by Herb Gardner and is called "How I Crossed the Street for the First Time All By Myself." It's not in the newer versions of the book.
posted by jessamyn at 2:35 PM on November 13, 2012

This rings faint bells for me. I remember something along similar lines, except that the lady was older maybe? And had a husband who was part of the story?

We might be thinking of different things, but now I'm wondering what mine was...
posted by phunniemee at 2:42 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it "Keep Walking" by Gina Daggett? It's been collected, e.g. in A cup of comfort for inspiration : Uplifting stories that will brighten your day.
posted by dhartung at 3:17 PM on November 13, 2012

I am 98% certain it's part of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Other Stories.
posted by changeling at 3:28 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

specifically, "Pillar of Salt": "Margaret, restless and unsettled in the apartment, goes to the corner store but has great difficulty crossing the street: the pedestrians, cars, and noises frighten her... On her way back from the store, Margaret waits through several lights, unable to cross the street. She is paralyzed and unable to move."
posted by changeling at 3:30 PM on November 13, 2012

I just looked at "Pillar of Salt," and it doesn't seem quite right -- there's nothing about not understanding the Walk/ Don't Walk signs, and the standing on a corner is just a couple of paragraphs of the longer story.
posted by sarcasticah at 3:44 PM on November 13, 2012

I just got it out of my bookshelf. true that there's no actual walk/don't walk sign, but rather she's paralyzed by the changing traffic light as she's trying to cross the street (for a few pages, not just paragraphs). she is also wearing a hat. no developmental disability, but the whole story's about her gradual descent into agoraphobia/possible insanity in NYC. & while a skim doesn't reveal the pocketbook thing, I seem to remember that maybe being part of a different Shirley Jackson story.

p.s. everybody should read the entire book of short stories, they are packed with exquisitely subtle horror (and not just "The Lottery")
posted by changeling at 3:57 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I was totally into "Free to Be..." as a kid, and "Pillar of Salt" hits so many of the notes I remember (especially the era, the darkness of it, and that picture on the modern Amazon cover of the woman clutching the old-fashioned pocketbook!!)... but I felt sure the character had a long-term mental impairment of some kind, not limited to this incident (I remember the story using the term "retarded")... though of course my memory is by no means fully reliable. I've just ordered the Shirley Jackson book for me (and the original "Free to Be" for a young friend!), both of which are wonderful finds regardless, and it may well be that reading "Pillar" in context will make everything click together as changeling suggests. I'll be sure to follow up!

Even if not, I'm absolutely thrilled about all the input here, and hope mefites with any other leads or recollections will continue to chime in. Thank you thank you all.
posted by argonauta at 4:05 PM on November 13, 2012

My immediate reaction to reading this was also that it was "Pillar of Salt."
posted by timsneezed at 5:44 PM on November 13, 2012

Actually, this wouldn't be 25+ years old, but I could have sworn Steve Martin did a short story or novel about this topic too...
posted by gusandrews at 12:33 PM on January 10, 2013

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