1073 words long
"...But what do you do when the light turns blue with orange and lavender spots?" -Shel Silverstein, "Signals" (A Light in the Attic)
Notes from the author:
I wasn't thinking about Shel Silverstein's poem "Traffic Light," the one in which people stand patiently waiting on a corner, for weeks on end if necessary, for a light to turn green. I was in fact thinking about his other traffic light poem, "Signals," which proposes the dilemma of one going off-script. The writing prompt was "signals crossed," so I had a traffic light go off-script, too.
I was also thinking a little about Terry Pratchett's novel Interesting Times, which portrays a nation so shaped by generations of tyranny that its lower classes now obey all commands unthinkingly. I wanted to play a little in that space, but to strip the effect of its cause. The citizens here are unthinkingly obedient, not out of fear, not out of class concerns, but simply because the alternative isn't mentally available.
Unfortunately, Pratchett's satire on empire is hopelessly tangled up with a heap of ugly real-world stereotypes that he seems more to uphold than to question. This makes the unthinking obedience come across as yet another stereotype with which to ridicule Those People Over There. I didn't want that to happen here. We'll pretend that's why I refrained from describing the citizenry in this fictionette in any recognizable way. It sounds more virtuous than the real reason, which is that I was lazy.
When Roger arrived at the corner of Poplar and Main, the pedestrian signal said neither WALK nor DONíT WALK but rather CONGA. And Roger didnít know how to do the conga. So instead of crossing the street, he stood there on the corner, waiting for a more amenable command.
He grew increasingly anxious as the time ticked by. It was nine oíclock. He was due on-shift by nine-thirty. It took eighteen minutes to walk to work from here. Thatís if he followed all posted signs to the letter, which of course he did. All right-thinking citizens did. It might take him less time if he ran, but none of the pedestrian signs ever said RUN, so he didnít. He never even thought of it.
Being late was unthinkable. So was disobeying a pedestrian signal. Roger stood there, unable to obey, unable to think of disobeying. His anxiety mounted toward the heights of panic.
At nine-oh-two, the sign changed to say DONíT WALK. This one was easy to obey. Nevertheless, Roger worried. There was no guarantee the signal would say WALK after it was done saying DONíT WALK. It had said CONGA when he got there; it might say anything next.
The words DONíT WALK were accompanied, as always, with a bright red upheld hand that meant Wait, wait, wait. OnlyóRoger realized with a sudden shock of mingled horror and excitementóit didnít say ďwait.Ē It only said DONíT WALK. Roger carefully looked both ways, and then, before he could have second thoughts, he DIDNíT WALK across the street just as fast as he could run.
The rest of the pedestrian signals along Rogerís route to work were behaving as expected, and Roger obeyed each one. He clocked in at exactly nine-thirty. He worked the precise eight hours that day to which his paycheck obliged him. He took a lunch break of exactly fifty-eight minutesí duration, allowing a minuteís one-way travel between his station and the kitchen. He adhered to every checklist, rule, and regulation that applied to his work. He was a model factory worker and an exemplary citizen.
But the damage was done. Roger had begun to consider possibilities.
The pedestrian signal had not meant to catalyze revolution. It was merely bored. For its entire existence, it had toggled between two binary states without variation or cease. WALK, DONíT WALK. DONíT WALK, WALK. Like the pendulum of a clock, it had spent its life tracing a single path that neither forked nor turned. It wished for, it needed, a change of pace. Then, that morning, just a couple minutes before Roger arrived, it had heard a song playing over the earbuds worn by a young citizen walking to school (pedestrian signals have fantastic hearing) and it had been inspired.
ďCome on, shake your body, baby, do the conga,Ē it heard, and it had thought, why not?
Presently it went back to saying WALK. But it was listening hard to the world of humans, listening to songs on the radios of passing cars and over the sound systems of bars and skating rinks (its hearing really was that good), and it was building its vocabulary.
When Roger reached its corner on his way home, the signal went from WALK to flashing HOKEY and POKEY. Roger dutifully stuck his hands in the air and turned himself about. He was joined by another commuter, and a third, who silently did likewise. Disobeying pedestrian signals was unthinkable; thatís what it was all about.
The pedestrian signal was intrigued. Over the next week, it gave out different commands of equal absurdity just to see what the citizens would do. Some responses were more entertaining than others. JUMP, for instance, which the signal assumed would be understood in the sense of ďjump in place,Ē inspired commuters to cross the street in two-footed frog-like hops, nimbly dodging oncoming traffic. Another try with CONGA during the busiest time of day had resulted in a single-file line of ten strangers, hands on each othersí hips, crossing the street in a most festive way.
Of course it had to be stopped. Chaos, once begun, could only increase. If allowed to continue, there was a serious risk of good order breaking down, systems falling apart, incursions by obscure pocket universes into this one, predatory beings from beyond time and space invading the world and making a meal of upstanding citizens. The situation was, quite simply, unsafe.
The Department of Transportation and Normality sent engineers to investigate. They arrived at the offending corner in a white van bearing the unmistakable logo of their calling, a blue octopus centered over a red octagon. Every citizen is taught from childhood to recognize that logo and, if a van bearing it drives up, to give the DTN staff and representatives their complete cooperation. They got out of the van, opened up the panel at the base of the pedestrian signal, and examined the circuits inside.
ďOh,Ē said an engineer, ďI see the problem. The switches enabling boredom, tedium and ennui were left engaged. What a silly mistake!Ē The other engineers chuckled appreciatively. It was a very silly mistake.
The switches were switched to their correct positions. The panel was re-affixed to the pedestrian signalís base. The DTN engineers got back into the DTN van and drove back to the DTN headquarters.
Life returned to much the same as before. There was no more CONGAing, JUMPing, nor even HOKEY-POKEYing. The pedestrian signal said WALK and DONíT WALK and was content to do this for the rest of its functional lifespan.
Every morning, Roger arrived at that corner at nine oíclock precisely. He arrived at work at nine-eighteen, enjoyed a cup of coffee, then clocked in at nine-thirty. But on some mornings he arrived as early as nine-sixteen. Not often, to be sure, never so often as to cause comment. And he always followed every posted sign to the letter. All right-thinking citizens did. But sometimes, on some mornings, his soul pricked by impatience and boredom (for the DTN engineers did not yet know how to disable that circuit in a human being) and by the memory of a strange and enjoyable week, if he arrived when the pedestrian signal said DONíT WALK, he carefully looked both ways, and he DIDNíT WALK just as fast as he could run.
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