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New Yorkers have been pointlessly pushing crosswalk buttons for decades

Apr 16, 2014

The perpetual bustle of New York City intersections has always captured a particular flavor of existential dread: Forced to stop moving when the traffic is against you, you’re suspended for a few seconds as no New Yorker is prepared for—with nothing to do. No paper to read, no time to start a phone call—you could check your phone but even looking down would prevent you from seeing when the light changes. So you’re forced to stand there and just…be.

Into the gulf rushes the “forever empty” that Louis CK wants to force his kids to confront by not having cell phones. But since most of us aren’t brave enough to face it, and without another viable distraction we reach to the closest thing: The crosswalk button. “To cross street, Push Button, Wait for Signal,” the placard tells us. And we push. And push.

Funny thing is, 10 years ago the New York Times printed an article about how crosswalk buttons had already been disconnected for years. Calling them “essentially mechanical placebos,” the Times noted the buttons had been installed in the ’60s and many of them were disconnected by the late ’80s. By 2004 over 2,500 of the 3,250 buttons in the city were inactive. Roughly 700 were still functional at the time but that number has surely plummeted over the last decade as the computer automation governing the city’s grid has only increased.

They thought about physically removing the buttons, but it would cost $1 million, and there always seemed to be something better to spend the money on. Like the city’s phone booths, largely ghost monuments to a bygone era, they serve no purpose other than reminding us of the past and the fact that we don’t have the cash or inclination to truly modernize and invest in upkeep.

And so we press on, pushing, pushing, pushing and waiting for the goddamn light to change. Maybe watch Louis CK’s bit below, and next time you get to a red light and the “forever empty” swarms you, just confront it head-on and have a good cry. It made him feel better—it’ll probably work for you. Plus, no one will notice—this is New York, after all.

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