The traffic lights in our city all went on strike. They were tired of being mangled by drunk drivers. Ignored by teenagers. Under the thumb of every Polly Police Car and Frankie Fire Engine in town. Red didn’t want to be Stop anymore; it longed to be a strawberry or a sunset. Green talked about apprenticing itself to a neon sign. And even Yellow knew no one cared what Yellow thought.
The lights knew the numbers: there simply weren’t enough cops and crossing guards and gloves and whistles. The traffic was labyrinthine, the body shops awash with the bent and the broken. “We will not kowtow to flippant electricity,” the City Council said, and the newspaper published its want ad for free.
“Scab,” my kitchen light said as I left for work that first day. Word crackled quickly along the power lines. We were told to bring our own candles. The city would supply the guy-wires and cellophane.
That was the June hundreds of human stoplights swung in trapezes above every intersection. We would light our candles and, according to the gleaming stopwatch in the hand of the teamster on our corner, put the correctly colored cellophane in front of them. The traffic lights hissed and zapped, perturbed. Their picket signs had snarling lightning bolts on them; there were veiled threats of electrocutions. But we were like drowsy fireflies over the city, the steady sway, the constant change, the tricks of light and order. The wax would melt and the wick would singe our skin and still we’d be out there, gently guiding the town where most of us were born.
It could have gone on like that for the rest of the summer, but the city and the lights eventually reconciled. The lights agreed to let every ambulance through always. The city agreed to more frequent bulb replacements and the right for the lights to turn purple once every thousand changes just to keep people guessing.
And us? There were no folk songs, no ribbons nor phone calls from the mayor. No valedictions about how we sailed over our nervous city. Some of my fellow stoplights went on to become lighting for romantic restaurants, their hands huge globes of wax with a flame locked somewhere inside. Others kept their harnesses and drifted off toward the circus. Me, I went back to driving my car, being sure to stop fully at all red lights. Because you never know who’s one spark away from explosion. And who’s just trying to get home.