Falling Ice Is Unwatchable

After a few drinks I’m on my way out of the city and I see this sign: “Watch for Falling Ice.” Since I am not yet a seasoned Chicagoan, and have not been desensitized to the city’s eccentricities, my instinct is to look up. No falling ice at the moment. I am safe. But was the sign responsible for my safety, or the fact that ice did not happen to be in the last few visible feet of its fall when I reacted to the sign?

Your best interests in mind. (Photo Jason McHuff)

Your best interests in mind. (Photo Jason McHuff)

The signs didn’t save the life of a Wisconsin man standing on Michigan Avenue in 1994:

Donald Booth, 49, of the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, was waiting for a cab in front of the four-story building about 11:45 a.m. when a piece of ice described by one police officer as ‘the size of a microwave’ snapped off the south end of the Michigan Avenue facade and landed on him.

No, falling ice is unwatchable. As much as Chicago would like to warn me, I feel unwarnable.

What is the ideal scenario? I dodge a clump of debris plummeting from the sill of floor 108? What would that feel like to read a warning of a rare accident and then look up to see this rare accident descending on me with the speed and slight wobble of maximum velocity? Would I be promised a YouTube video of my side-step as a congratulation?

I wonder what the purpose of this sign is and I wonder if there is a responsible party–an official or even an office intern–who didn’t cringe when the city or property owner (both are responsible for the signage) made their decision to put out these warnings. Who didn’t realize, I mean, that these were, in fact, watch-for-falling-lawsuits signs?

But to understand the efficacy of such a sign, one has to leave one’s individuality behind. This is hard to do for Americans who are reluctant to accept the principle of social intelligence. (E.g., every time my delivery driver-friend makes less than minimum wage for the day, he says “Hate the player, not the game” by which he is intending to say he’s mad at himself for not trying hard enough.)

So if someone were to tell you that these signs save lives you’d laugh, as I did. But only because I picture my own life at stake, my own chance reading of the sign, my own lucky upward glance leading to…an empty sky. It’s when you don’t look that you get sliced.

The Chicago Tribune is limited by the same capitalist logic: “Experts say not much can be done to protect yourself when an icy dagger falls from above.”

But that’s not the point. It’s a “public safety issue,” says the Ralph Nader in my head. Meaning that somehow, statistically–through the mystery of science–if you remind people that ice slipping from the flanks of skyscrapers could be lights out, fewer people die from this lottery. More people look up, more take shelter when waiting for a cab on Michigan Ave. I might be unwarnable, but the social organism I belong to is not.

Of course, there is a fine line between necessary and unnecessary precaution, and these falling ice signs may be of the latter category. A city of pedestrians puddle-hopping from shelter to shelter to avoid a type of death that has been recorded only once in Chicago’s history–this is not my ideal city.

So let’s talk about seat belts, since we were just talking about Ralph Nader. It’s a public safety issue.

Which has it’s opponents. Some blogger of some blog writes “one realizes that these laws are an infringement on our independent liberties provided to us in the United States Constitution.” (Something about the way the author spells out “United States” makes me picture him snapping straight when he says it and forgetting that he was trying to make his own argument.)

As a citizen of the United States of America, I have to retort that all laws are an infringement on liberty, but if that liberty is to avoid the discomfort of a nylon strap in a trade-off with death, then why not consider your rare run-in with law enforcement another simple trade-off? In other words, if you’re willing to die for your seat belt-free lifestyle, why are you not willing to get a ticket?

I am solidly pro-seat belt (except when law enforcement use them as an excuse to exercise their prejudice in the fashion of a stop-and-frisk, highway style). And I am lukewarm in my support for falling ice signs only because I’d like to see research on how many lives they save versus how many deaths they are responsible for.  Until then, the only pleasure I’ll get from seeing them is the equalizing effect of being reminded that falling ice is not classist or racist. The sky is falling on all of us, forcing us to admit that there is such a thing as public health and public safety and they’re different from individual safety. We’re forced to use our social imagination rather than our individual one…which, in the end, is tempted to point out that these signs are just a little bit silly.


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