5557016667_6351a649f8_bResponsible thumb ownership: A modest proposal (Image via)

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking down Fifth Avenue around 33rd Street on the way to my office when suddenly I was knocked to the ground by a thirtysomething guy walking behind me. Predictably, he was busy texting instead of looking where he was going.

“Sorry,” said he.

“Sorry doesn’t cut it, Bub,” said I.

There was a time in my life when I would be gracious about inadvertent knockdowns, but this wasn’t the time—because this wasn’t inadvertent.  Oh, sure, it was unintentional, unpremeditated, uncalculated, unwitting, unthinking.  But as I said, that doesn’t cut it:  Surely it’s not too much to expect people to calculate the effect of their heedlessness, to be mindful of this absent-mindedness, even to attribute their unwitting assaults to their own half-wittedness. In short, to think before it becomes necessary (or polite) to offer a perfunctory “Sorry.”

My guess is that knocking down this grouchy (I admit) old lady (I don’t) didn’t make him think, but it started me thinking about all the things that I, a lifelong New Yorker, find make me nuts about New York:  people walking down the street texting or glued to their email; baby strollers (especially on the Upper West Side) nipping at your heels until you jump out of the way; bikes that fly at you from all directions.

And what makes all of these annoying/dangerous/deadly behaviors possible?  Opposable thumbs! Yup, the very thing that separates human beings from other animals. The opposable thumb (aka the oppositional thumb) rotates, allowing us to touch (or oppose) the other fingertips of the same hand.  This, in turn, gives us the ability to grasp objects of various sizes—from toothpicks to stroller handles to bicycle handlebars to open coffee cups on the bus—and to operate devices, like smartphones. Proof that our thumbs set us apart from other animals, even other primates?  When was the last time you saw a great ape texting on an iPhone?

Yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t blame distracted walking (or driving) on opposable thumbs. To some extent this is true, since it’s not only opposable thumbs that set us apart from other animals, but also consciousness, awareness, the ability to foresee the consequences of our actions—and to care about them.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not calling for a ban on thumbs.  I like to count on my fingers, zip my pants, button my blouse, tie my sneakers, and, yes, text on my iPhone (though not while walking or driving) as much as the next person.  But I am opposed to the havoc that oppositional thumbs can wreak. Therefore, I am asking that you join my Oppositional Party, which calls for responsible thumb ownership. If you’re with me, touch your thumb to your forefinger and flash the A-OK sign.  If you’re not, well, picture my thumb touching the tip of my nose with my other four fingers wiggling in the air.  Because carelessness—and worse—is something we should all be thumbing our nose at.

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  • Susan Orlins May 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    I love how you use thumbs to rant about sidewalk behavior and more.

    Here’s a positive fantasy for you: Me in DC—where cycling on the sidewalk is legal (except for downtown)—biking among pedestrians while a texter going the other way walks into my bike.

    Well, it hasn’t happened, because I yell, “‘Scuse me!” but it could.

    And don’t hate me, but someone on East 92nd St in New York one evening after I attended a program at the 92nd St Y pushed me off my bike because I was riding on the sidewalk.

    If interested, I documented this encounter on my blog, Confessions of a Worrywart, along with other lessons learned on a particular 10-day trip to the city. http://bit.ly/14VCsh9

  • Joan Liebmann-Smith May 22, 2013 at 9:37 am

    I TOTALLY agree with you, Caryl! Great article — and points. Thumbs up! An “I’m sorry” might cut it if it were just a bump! But knocking someone down? Come on! The guy should at least be given a summons! RE the strollers — it’s the double strollers that are the worst — the an mothers who feel entitled to take up extra space (often nicking our ankles in the process!) It’s not OK!! Interestingly, I’ve noticed that nannies who push strollers are more considerate than the mothers!

  • Laurie Graham May 22, 2013 at 3:19 am

    Thumb-assisted, I’m tying my shoes and going out right now to found the Irish branch of the Oppositional Party. Well said, Caryl Avery!

  • Paula Herman May 21, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    My sentiments entirely. I think that once people become AWARE of their actions when texting and walking (as they are slowly becoming aware of the danger of texting while driving), they will be more respectful of the “space” they are in and the others’ space that they invade. Try sending an OP ED piece to the NYTimes and other media.

  • Gail Potash May 21, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Very amusing. You made my day. Makes me think about what is important in life. And, carelessness should not be ignored.

  • Gillian Eddins May 21, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Well put, so very true.

  • Gillian Eddins May 21, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    Well said and well written.

  • Carole Fudin May 21, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    This is thumb-thing very witty, special, and true! Two thumbs up for Caryl Avery!

  • nancy levin May 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    A O.K. all the way.
    How about all the walkers who do not understand to walk on the right side. I’ve almost been pushed down cellars cause there is nowhere to walk on the sidewalks.
    I’m waiting for someone on a phone, texting, e mailing etc. as they walk, to be swallowed by a hole in the street – but somehow, we are the ones shoved and they go on their merry way.
    Hurray for you for making a statement here!!!!
    so, A O.K. all the way!!

  • Deborah Harkins May 20, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Good advice, Jennifer. Standing stubbornly until the foursome yields would make me feel better. Funny how these tiny rudenesses have the power to raise the blood pressure.

    The real problem: Dodging the bikers who ride on the sidewalks, ride the wrong way, ride through red lights, cut curbs so sharply that you’re in danger. I used the faithfully shout at them: “Wrong way, biker!” but all that gets me is people looking askance at ME. I fantasize that my cry will be taken up all along the sidewalk till the biker is shamed into the street. But no. Nobody else has the energy.

  • Jennifer Cheyne May 20, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Egads, I know what you mean! I live in Berkeley, near the UC campus, and I used to hop out of the way of oncoming texters. Now I just stop in my path and wait for them to notice that they are about to collide. “Oh, sorry,” is all I ever hear. The other thing is that we are bipeds and social animals, which allows us to walk 4-across on narrow sidewalks – I used to hop to the right, even into the little grass/dirt area – but no more. I stand still until somebody scoots, and think to myself “Can I not have just one square of these 4 across here?” Usually, a shoulder is dipped aside – no more. Lord. AOK to you, Caryl! You nailed an issue I’ve been silently coping with. ;0)

  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson May 18, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Way to go! It’s called mindlessness. Being unconscious of others. Self-centered. I already made the ok sign.

  • Diane Dettmann May 18, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Enjoyed your essay–so true. Flashing you an A-OK you’re way!

  • Roz Warren May 18, 2013 at 8:13 am

    Thanks to my own OTs, I can easily type this comment thanking you for brightening my day with this little essay.