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Walk Like a Maniac

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True confessions of a jaywalker

By Justin Berton

JAYWALKING IN GERMANY is a serious crime. Violators who cross the street before being told are, culturally speaking, the lowest life form imaginable. But one would be surprised at how, right here at home, jaywalkers impact the collective digestive system of the San Jose Police Department.

On Feb. 2 at about 11pm, three friends and I were leaving Lenny's Bar on Santa Clara Street, heading west toward, well, another bar, the Mission Ale House. As we walked, a floodlight shined on us, blinding us, and a patrol car burst up onto the curb.

The officer told us to show ID and hug a bumper. His partner frisked each of us thoroughly, causing us to giggle like a chorus of schoolgirls.

"Hee-hee-hee. What did we do?" was asked.

"Oh, you know what you did" was the cold response.

While one of my more mouthy friends was launching into the "Don't you have something better to do?" speech, I was thinking that surely they would let us go once they realized we had no drugs, guns or warrants.

But cops never let you go, really.

When the paddy wagon pulled up, I got concerned.

"OK, OK," I said. "What's with this? We're not exactly known as the San Jose Four here."

"Safety in numbers," the officer said. "There's four of you, and now there's four of us."

I asked the officer, sincerely, why he found it necessary to detain four full-grown adults for 25 minutes to issue jaywalking tickets.

"I know you'll think this is corny," he began, "but if you tell one person what happened to you tonight and what a hassle it was, then maybe that person will think twice before they do it. And who knows? Maybe we'll save one life."

I thought about it a few seconds and concluded that the officer was absolutely right. I did think his logic was corny.

Who was I to question the "if-it-will-save-just-one-life" mantra that seems to motivate millions of people despite its lackluster results? (One would think if the plan actually worked, the Bay Area would resemble Bangladesh, what with all those "saved" lives walking around.)

So I gave the officer the benefit of the doubt. Then he gave me a ticket.

Three weeks later I moved to Colorado and, surprisingly, forgot that I had committed the crime of the century.

That's why when I came home from work last night in my usual good mood, I was thrown into a deep funk when I opened an envelope containing a warrant for my arrest.

Santa Clara County Municipal Judge Ray E. Cunningham wrote me to ask that I either pay $248 or make an appearance in his courtroom.

I almost hate to admit this, Judge Cunningham, but upon receipt of your letter, I put my thumbs in my ears and stuck out my tongue.

Honorable Ray, you've got as much chance of seeing my mug in your courtroom as I do of going cold-turkey to curb my abuse of crosswalks.

And abusing crosswalks is exactly what I do, oh yes.

After I caught myself gesticulating like a child to a municipal judge who lived in another time zone, the weight of the arrest warrant threw me to rock bottom. It caused me to slump in my chair, put my chin to my chest and do some heavy introspection.

The first time I got busted, I was 11 years old.

The year was 1983 and the No. 1 song on the radio was, oh, I dunno, probably something by Duran Duran. Let's say "Hungry Like the Wolf."

I was walking to Steinbeck Middle School in south San Jose with my two pals Mikey Purcell and Albert Cleveland. It was a bright, sunny morning, and when all was clear, the three of us hustled across the intersection at Blossom Hill Road and Pearl Avenue. When we were just about to book into the cornfield where there's now a Jamba Juice, Starbuck's and Blockbuster Video, a police officer riding an induro motorcycle came zooming out of the corn rows and stopped us cold.

The cop wrote us tickets and told us to show them to our parents. Knowing that Albert's father, Mr. Cleveland, was the largest, most-feared parent on the block, Mikey and I begged Albert to join us in ripping the tickets into a thousand pieces and tossing them into the cornfield.

But Albert's conscience wouldn't allow it.

Mr. Cleveland lit into us good, even worse than when he caught the three of us shooting marbles from slingshots at a house where an elderly lady lived. "If you boys are going to keep getting into that kind of trouble," the towering Mr. Cleveland raged, "then I don't want you hanging out with Albert no more!"

So much for that friendship. I still think we could have gotten away with the ambush-by-marbles had we selected a victim who didn't live next door to Mr. Cleveland.

Then last year, when two friends I met in Munich (where, I can now safely assume, I did my part to reinforce the jaywalking Ugly American stereotype) came to visit me in San Francisco, I brazenly crossed Haight Street with no instruction.

My German friends stood glued to the curb like two well-trained golden retrievers. "C'mon," I yelled, waiving them over. Terrified, they sprinted to catch up.

"Justin?!" Roland whispered as he reached the other side of the road, "You can do this, yeah?"

"Sure you can, boys," I boasted. And as if I had to remind them, "It's a free country!"

When I add it all up, a life of jaywalking may look glamorous on the outside, but on the inside, it really looks like this: I am an enemy to at least one foreign country. I have a warrant out for my arrest in the city of my birth. It has cost me one childhood friendship. I live in exile. And until now, I have deceived those who love me into thinking I was a kind, virtuous, wait-for-the-green-light kind of guy.

Do they have meetings for this kind of behavior?

To add to the gravity of my distress, my high school reunion is a few months away. While others are wondering if they've gotten fat or lost their hair, I'll sulk with the hard fact of knowing that I haven't changed one damn bit. I'm the same ol' jaywalker.

I can see it now. "Hey, there's Mikey Purcell and Albert Cleveland! Aren't their children just beautiful! Look at the mountain of cash they made from Internet stocks!"

Me: Single. Broke. Still crossing on the red.

I'm sure all three are related.

Now, I know what you are thinking, kind reader. You're wondering, "How can one person be so self-indulgent as to use Metro's column space to rant about himself and jaywalking?"

Take with you this: I am trying to save your life.

And if not yours, then maybe Joe's from around the corner.

Mine, sadly, is already wasted.

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From the July 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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