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You see them every day, in every major American city. Darting to and fro, eyes straining forward, looking for potential breaks in traffic. Their movements are irregular, synchronized, as they must be, with the constant ebb and flow of the traffic swirling around them.

They lean forward into traffic, searching for that first possible moment they can begin their journey. Once begun, they time their steps in a seemingly random, haphazard sequence. Only the eye in the sky can see that they’re dancing a ballet with the Detroit steel descending rapidly upon them. If they’re lucky, they will time their ragged footsteps to fall behind each passing wheel, dodging and weaving around the cars as they go by. If they’re really lucky, they will be able to time their footsteps to hit the far end of the crosswalk just as the light turns red, so they can turn immediately left or right and begin the process all over again.

They’re street matadors, an evolutionary offshoot from normal human beings. You know, normal human beings -- the type of people who would, under most circumstances, refuse to charge in front of a speeding taxi unless their child or spouse were spread-eagled on the pavement in immediate harm’s way. The kind of people who don’t measure their crosswalk times to the second. The kind of people who know that they’ll get there when they get there, and there’s no point in trying to speed things up.

But not a street matador. No, for one of these unfortunates, the crossing itself is the game, and doing it successfully provides that little noon-day rush that gets them through their sad, cubicled days.

How to Recognize a Street Matador

If you’re standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, there is one simple, irrefutable test to determine if you have a street matador in your midst. While other pedestrians may be talking to each other, reading a newspaper, or idly staring around, the street matador’s gaze will be focused like a laser on the oncoming traffic, and nothing else. He will be standing at the very edge of traffic, at times incurring the wrathful honking of vehicles, especially cabs, turning close to the curb where he is standing.

When a break in traffic shows, even if it doesn’t stretch all the way across the street, the street matador will immediately bolt into the lane, trying to get as far as he can without being hit.

To a street matador, being forced to wait at the curb until the Walk sign actually begins to flash is already an admission of failure.

Once in the street, the game begins. The street matador may walk into traffic slowly, or he may walk quickly. It all depends on the traffic coming ahead. The real distinguishing feature is not the speed he walks, but the way he looks constantly forward into oncoming traffic, and the way he adjusts his speed to blend in with the cars ahead.

Regular pedestrians walk through an intersection as though they were on an assembly line. A street matador paints a portrait with his feet.

If the traffic ahead becomes too heavy, a street matador will stop, standing still in the street like a statue. Cars may pass behind him, in front and behind, but he’ll never notice, except to discern how he can move forward. Indeed, all he can see is the road ahead, looking for that one break in traffic that will let him move forward again. It is in these momentary pauses in traffic that the street matador begins to resemble the real thing, swaying to and fro to let the mechanical bulls pass on either side, waiting for his chance to dart forward and deliver the death blow.

But it is when the street matador miscalculates that his original heritage really shines through. Most pedestrians, when faced with an oncoming car ahead of them, will back up immediately to get out of its way. Not the street matador. He will move forward, into the traffic, squaring his shoulders to challenge the oncoming beast. He will stare down the driver, daring him to come forward, daring him to hit a pedestrian in the middle of the road.

And the oncoming car will almost always stop. The driver may honk the horn and make any number of obscene gestures – in fact, he probably will – but the odds are strongly in the street matador’s favor that the driver will back down, rather than hit a pedestrian in the middle of the street.

Stop for Cops, Not Cabs

Now, I have driven as well as walked in city traffic, and I know that – to the drivers involved – this behavior is annoying, if not downright infuriating. But I also know that the only cars that belong downtown in any city are cops and cabs. Everyone else should take the subway, bus, or cab to get there. In fact, I believe strongly that one of the most dangerous things in downtown traffic is a tourist behind a wheel. They can actually kill someone.

Some people will tell you that cabs can do the same thing, but it’s not true. Yes, cabs will drive aggressively, and try to make a street matador back down, but at the end of the day, they won’t run over anyone. Because while the cab company itself may have split into 10,000 little corporations to avoid massive liability, the individual cab driver needs to keep his car and his license to keep food on his children’s plate. A good street matador, knowing this, will exploit the weakness to squeeze into traffic ahead of any cab.

But where the game falls through – and where the street matador winds up on the losing end – is when he tries to stare down a cop. It can’t be done. Yeah, sure, the cop is not going to run over you. But what he will do is stop his car, walk up to you, and give you a jaywalking citation. To a street matador, that is the ultimate humiliation.

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