Saturday, June 07, 2003

Thinking of walking
I have been thinking of walking for a few days now. Not pondering whether to go for a walk later, but reminiscing fondly about when I walked. Don’t get me wrong, I can still walk and do (often from the computer to the refrigerator and back). I was thinking about the days when I was a pedestrian.

I’ve only been driving for a few years. If you look at my picture and think, “he looks older than that,” you’re right. I was forty-two before I got a car. I picked up a driver’s license at twenty-one and even bought a used car in my mid twenties. But it fell apart in less than six months and I realized it was easier to pay off my student loans without a car hanging around my neck. So I walked and walking became part of my life.

When I still lived in Alaska, this was something of an accomplishment. Anchorage sprawls over a lot of space and has never had a real mass transit system. Carless just isn’t an option in most of the West. After a few years I found I was rapidly approaching the status of a local character. I would meet people who would light up in recognition of my battered hat and overflowing pockets, “oh yeah, I’ve seen you walking.” They had finally met one of the-men-who-walk. This could give them serious story telling cred in their social circle, so they would milk me for information.

“How did you lose your license?” they’d say. I must be a drunk driver. Alaska is full of them. Everyone is related one; this could be our bonding element. “Yes, I know the guy in the hat who walks. He’s a lot like my cousin, Sidney.”

“I didn’t. I still have one. See.” I’d dig around in my pockets till I’d find it. The fact that I also didn’t have a wallet would only add to my image of eccentricity.

“Is this something political—or environmental?” Oh, a tree-hugger. In those days there were only eight liberals in Alaska. A tree-hugger in most social situations was about as welcome a typhoid carrier. I managed most of my social situations so I was among either the apolitical or the marginally progressive. Even so, I managed more than once to find myself facing some red-faced male with his chest puffed out announcing, “Jimmy Carter is the worst president we ever had! Wudda you think of that?” “I think I’ll have another beer,” was the safest answer. Another dangerous situation would end with my new best friend (sloppy drunk) telling me how much he loved me and how he never really had a friend quite like me before.

But, back to the first conversation. “A little;” I’d admit, “but mostly, it’s just what I do.”

Relieved, but still suspicious and now thoroughly baffled by the whole thing, they’d try to figure out the mechanics of it, “so, how do you do that?”

I never quite knew how to deal with that question. I didn’t want to be sarcastic (“put one foot in front of the other; repeat as necessary”) to a new acquaintance, so I’d try to explain the logistics: “plan ahead, bring a coat in case the weather changes, give yourself lots of time, carry a book, never buy more than one bag of groceries at a time.”

Sometimes I miss walking. I miss the time to think, to explore ideas both deep and silly, and to clarify my thoughts. I miss reading on the bus, at the stop, and when arriving early at my appointments. I miss the planned loop of errands through the town, going from home, to here, to there, to another place, and home again across the course of a day (drivers go out and home and out again in sequence, on impulse). Time is different for a driver and for a pedestrian. Pedestrians must learn to accept their lack of control over time; drivers have enough of an illusion of control that they constantly fight for more. My body, of course, misses the exercise; I gained ten pounds when I bought a car.

It’s been hot in the Northwest for a few days now. The garden, the cats, my evil lawn, and I are all wilting. I was standing in the kitchen having a glass of cold water on Thursday when my wife said, “sure is a nice day.” I looked out the window and sighed, “yeah, but I’m glad I’m not walking.”

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