If a vote were taken, the most beloved character in the Big Book probably be the Jaywalker. My hunch is based on the grins, laughter, and head-nodding I see in meetings whenever that character is described. If you have even casually read the Big Book, you probably remember his story.
I originally thought of the Jaywalker as a sort of tragic clown. He’s not too bright. He enjoys intentionally dashing out in front of fast-moving traffic. At first, he enjoys his dangerous habit. As time passes he suffers increasingly frequent and serious injuries. He vows he will stop but soon finds himself returning to the busy roadway and continues taking ever-greater risks. After one too many mad dashes, this tragic clown is flattened by a streetcar and suffers a broken back—ending up being paralyzed or perhaps even dead.
The Big Book’s author Bill Wilson writes: “if we substituted our alcoholism for jaywalking, the illustration would fit us exactly.”
Bill W. had to choose his words very carefully as he wrote the Big Book. He had a panel of sober alcoholics overseeing his writing at every step. So please consider exactly what “illustration” Bill was referring to. Was this really a tragic clown story? Was he saying that every alcoholic is a laughable Jaywalker who takes senseless risks until one day it catches up with him.
Is that the lesson that AA teaches—that alcoholics should stop their foolishness and act sober?
Doesn’t that description sound more like how non-drinkers view alcoholics (and addicts)? Non-drinkers view drunks as tragic clowns who should stop fooling around. They believe that alcoholics could—if they really wanted to to—simply give up alcohol and all of their problems would end. Poof!
Isn’t that totally at odds with the AA view of the drinking problem? Does the Twelve Step program of recovery really present real alcoholics as tragic clowns who merely need to “wise up”? I don’t see where it does.
So, if the Jaywalker is not a foolish, cartoon-like character, what OTHER interpretation could there be?
I see an alternative interpretation in plain sight. I notice that the Jaywalker story appears in the Big Book (BB p. 37), right after Bill Wilson defined the “insanity” of alcoholics. He reduced that insanity to two traits: “the lack of proportion, of the inability to think straight“. I believe Bill Wilson traced the countless mis-steps, mistakes, and tragedies associated with alcoholic behavior to only those two traits. On the very same page, Bill offers his description of the Jaywalker.
This is why I doubt that the Jaywalker is Bill’s attempt at comedy. If Bill wanted to portray a foolish idiot, he could have invented a hilarious person who jumps off the top of a tall building or blows themselves up with dynamite. Why, then, did Bill choose a jaywalking pedestrian to illustrate alcoholic insanity?
NOT A CLOWN AT ALL
Please put aside any cartoonish view you may have of the Jaywalker. Picture him instead as a living, breathing, and perfectly intelligent human being—someone you might pass every day on the street. Imagine this gentleman stepping out of a cigar shop and onto a busy New York sidewalk. He notices that his barber shop is located directly across the street and realizes he needs a haircut. He wants to cross the street but he’s in the middle of the city block—far from the traffic lights which are plainly visible at both ends of the block.
At those traffic lights, there are countless people crossing this same street safely. They wait for the “Walk” signal, then they cross casually. They have no need to hurry, because the cars will remain motionless as long as the signal remains red. At those distant crosswalks, the Jaywalker knows he can find a proportioned (sane) and straight (also sane) way to across the street.
But something is troubling the Jaywalker. The crosswalks seem soooooo far away to him. He’s a very busy, very important man. He doesn’t want to walk from the cigar shop to the crosswalk and back to his barber shop. Why walk so far—he asks himself—when a quick dash across the street will get him there almost instantly? Let’s pause and consider. The Jaywalker has two clear choices.
- One is to walk calmly and safely for five minutes.
- The other is to dash into the open road, legs furiously pumping, heart pounding, narrowly eluding painful death….and arriving at the other side within a few moments. His reward? He will be seated comfortably in a barber’s chair while those trudging slowpokes at the crosswalk are still staring at a red light.
The excitement and superiority he feels after jaywalking is irresistible. He has found excitement by risking his life to avoid five minutes of complete (and boring) safety. Let me repeat that for non-addicts. This Jaywalker is willing to literally risk his life to prevent just five minutes of dull and boring walking. The more close-calls he suffers, the more excited his friends will be when he brags to them later. Soon, he will indulge his risk-taking impulse every day. Bill’s definition of insanity becomes perfectly clear. This Jaywalker suffers “the lack of proportion” and “the inability to think straight.”
I do not believe Bill was describing alcoholics as tragic clowns. That would make no sense given the total message of the Big Book. I believe he was describing a type of person who is constitutionally incapable of doing things the ordinary and “boring” way even when the ordinary way is simple, safe, convenient, nearby, and free. I believe Bill was pointing out that alcoholics (and all addicts by extension) lack the proportion and straight thinking to take the safe route—to choose the sensible solution even when it is easily within their grasp.
My drawing reflects that understanding. It shows the Jaywalker’s making his typical mad dash across an open road, heedless of whether any cars are coming. He shows contempt toward the dull “trudgers” who use dull and distant traffic lights. His body already bears certain bandages and scars from his recent close scrapes, but he is lured back to his habit by an insatiable desire to “beat the system” and return to his favorite shortcut. His sense of superiority motivates him to defy ordinary rules, customs, and habits.
He is not a clown, in my eyes…..tragic or otherwise. He is me. The Jaywalker is ME.
He is my tendency to take shortcuts. And my secret desire to defy society’s rules. And my aching need to feel better than everyone else. And my egotistical love of always being right. He is my lack of proportion. He is my inability to think straight.
I am the Jaywalker. Plain and simple.
That is, until I ask God what HE would have me be. Would He have me walk 100 yards, wait with the crowd at the intersection, cross with the WALK light, then trudge the Road of Happy Destiny another 100 yards back to my barber shop?
I think so. I believe so. And I now do so.
TRIVIA: Around the time Bill W. wrote about the Jaywalker, there were a number of political activists who believed anyone should have the unquestioned right to cross any street when and wherever they pleased. These believers weren’t entirely crazy. They were holding onto the pre-automobile days when people on foot reigned supreme over the streets. They felt all cars should be compelled to stop for any pedestrian who stepped into traffic, period. Historical sources I found suggest that Chicago was a focus for these die-hard bipedal believers. I have no idea whether that movement had followers in New York City where Bill W. got sober. Had it existed in my time, I guiltily admit I would have considered joining it myself. It would have allowed me to explain my own insane Jaywalking tendencies.
I hope this link still works. It shows rebellious pedestrians who insist on jaywalking whenever they wish. Bill Wilson would probably cheer them on. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLYUR6KSqEU