He was only four foot four, so it is not hard to imagine that someone driving an SUV down Hollywood Boulevard at night could have failed to see him. Especially if he’d been jaywalking, as the police report said he had been. But the sad, tragic and completely unnecessary death of Ben Woolf, 34, who played the part of a carnival-show pinhead known as Meep on NBC’s American Horror Stories, was also disturbing for the manner in which he’d been killed – clipped by the side mirror of the SUV.
Surely this must be a daily occurrence, I’d thought after reading his obituary. How many times had I felt the blast of wind as a driver sped by with only inches to spare, pinning me against my parked car as I waited to get in? Just the other day, one of them had even flipped me off as he passed, ignoring my gesticulated plea to slow down. I wonder now, if I’d been clipped by the side mirror, would the police report say that I too had been jaywalking?
After this latest near-miss, I remember I tried to be analytical, a little way I have of calming myself after a close call. I thought about how much safer that particular street would be if it were to give back a lane. You know, to the pedestrian. I’d read somewhere that narrower streets, and narrower lanes, had the effect of slowing down traffic. But a ‘street diet,’ as it is called, is never easy in this town, where what you drive and how you drive it are important status markers. Just try telling a guy in his brand new $150,000 Tezla that you’re lowering the speed limit or putting one of his favorite roads on a diet and you’re risking a lawsuit, if not a punch in the eye.
And the thing is, most of us have been on both sides of this equation. As pedestrians, we get it. Life is frustrating for drivers. Traffic keeps getting worse and the infrastructure wheezes. Streets are dug up, college campuses are shot up, and doddering movie stars crash-land their single-engine planes into golf courses. None of which is good for traffic (or golfers, for that matter). And let’s not forget the frequent fundraising visits of our commander in chief, which only worsen that pre-existing condition we like to call Carmegeddon. Thanks, Obama.
So like I said, we get it, because most of us are drivers as well. And when we get in the car, there’s usually a very good reason for it. We no longer Cruise the Strip, a fantasy about L.A. that is still very much in vogue for certain East Coast press elites. Contrary to their assumptions, we’re too busy, and we’re usually in a hurry. So much so that sometimes it can be a challenge to not hit a pedestrian. And once in a while, we actually do hit one, and they die, or come very close to it.
Even Eric Garcetti, our pedestrian-friendly mayor, got into the act shortly after assuming office. As he carried on what was undoubtedly important city business, the driver of the SUV he was riding in ran over a pedestrian. The woman who was hit survived with minor injuries, and to his credit, hizzoner’s driver stopped. And the incident did induce a reaction on the part of law enforcement. Only, many are saying, it was the wrong reaction. Rather than finding new ways to slow down and reduce the number of vehicles that pass through our increasingly crowded Downtown, One-Adam-Twelve decided to increase the number of tickets they were already handing out – for jaywalking.
There it is again, that word, ‘jaywalking.’ First coined a century ago, it was used as part of a campaign by the auto industry to orchestrate the takeover of our cities. Pedestrians, who had until then been strictly free-range, would now be corralled and told to obey different colored lights. And accidents between cars and pedestrians would no longer be the fault of the joyriding driver but of the jaywalking pedestrian himself.
This is, of course, what happened to Ben Woolf. As with the mayor’s driver, the driver of the SUV that struck Mr. Woolf stopped, and also was not cited. It was deemed an accident because Mr. Woolf had been jaywalking. As for the incident with the mayor, it occurred right outside the Times Building, and was even captured on security cameras there, which gave it a certain local flavor. But still, the Times saw no there there, as this too appeared to be a case where the victim was at fault.
Then two weeks ago, a young man named Eduardo Lopez got a jaywalking ticket for $197. The Times reported on the extreme hardship the ticket presented for the 22-year-old, who lives with and supports his mother and four younger siblings in a one-bedroom apartment. When ticketed, Mr. Lopez, a hustler in the best sense of the word, had been running to catch a bus that would have taken him to Glendale Community College in time to make his first class. This after not sleeping for 24 hours and working the graveyard shift at a pallet manufacturing plant near LAX.
It may turn out that coverage of the unreasonable and punitive ticketing of Mr. Lopez will help hasten a shift city-wide in the balance of power from drivers to walkers. But that will come too late for Ben Woolf. Friends and fans alike were devastated by the news of his death, and filled the correspondence columns of Variety and other outlets, giving us a fuller picture of the man. One posting revealed that he’d done a more-than-passable job at learning Hindi for a movie in which he’d been cast. Another talked about how he’d be missed by the pre-school kids he worked with as a teacher when he wasn’t acting.
Yet another said simply, “They killed Meep.”
It was an odd and moving summation of the sadness felt in the community for the unnecessary death of one of its own, a man we were as likely to bump into at Trader Joe’s as to see performing in the carnival world we call TV.
— sadly but unsurprisingly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum