One Foot in Front of the Other Street Level

| 25 Feb 2016 | 02:30

Let me start this in Hemingway’s Paris.

“I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.”

A Moveable Feast

I’ve had a pat answer when people ask why I moved here 20 years ago. I’d say I moved here for the Jewish bookstores and the Irish bars. I thought that was a cool answer. And a true one. But I’d revise that answer now. I’d tell a deeper truth about why I’ve been here. I’ve been here for the walking.

Outsiders might think we’re here for the shopping. While I’m no shopper, I might have thought that, too. We have so many stores. Other places don’t. When I visit my youngest daughter in ski-area Wyoming and we pull in her driveway late in the day after picking up her three young daughters from school and their varied activities, there’s almost always a package or two on the big-stone steps in front of the door. I thought, Oh, sure, if they want shoes or sweaters or Halloween costumes, they have to order them from someplace else. It’s not New York, I thought. Then I started noticing just how many packages show up in the lobby of my apartment building here all afternoon. Mounds of them, from the same places my Wyoming daughter was getting her daily shipments from. So maybe shopping in the bountiful stores was not why people lived here. No more than books or pints of Guinness were really why I lived here. I think our daily walking routine is the one thing that we can’t get anywhere else.

The tiny old woman in my building would shuffle through the lobby with baby steps early every still-dark morning. The all-night doorman would push and hold the big glass door open for her. He’d be alert for her return 15 minutes later. He’d jump up to get the door for her. Her hands were full, even if she’d have been strong enough maybe to manage getting through the big doors by herself. She had a cup of coffee in one hand and a Daily News in the other hand. If she were your mother, you’d tell her you’d get her a coffee maker and you’d have her paper delivered. But she’d likely not hear of it. She liked to get out. You could tell. She was still grateful for the opportunity to walk across the street and get what she needed.

“For (Jane Austen and the readers of Pride and Prejudice), as for Mr. Darcy, (Elizabeth Bennett’s) solitary walks express the independence that literally takes the heroine out of the social sphere of the houses and their inhabitants, into a larger, lonelier world where she is free to think: walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Here, your car can’t make a statement about who you are. Here, your clothes and the way you walk say who you are.

Almost no one here is exceptionally heavy. I’m surprised therefore, given the vanity and the health-consciousness of New Yorkers, who want to look and feel good when they’re walking down the street, how many cookies and chocolate things are for sale here. Just like I’m surprised when I go out for breakfast on Sunday morning, how many people still get bacon with their eggs. They eat like Larry the Cable Guy. You wouldn’t think. All the walking must allow them to pig out.

If you walk for exercise, they say you should walk like you’re late for an appointment.

If Michael Bloomberg got us all to stop smoking in bars and restaurants--in all bars and all restaurants, in an instant--how come no one can stop cars from barreling through red lights here? They don’t squeeze through, or inch through, either, they barrel through. Sans souci. You’d think that would be one thing city government could do. Make cars stop at red lights. Walkers notice. It’s awful, isn’t it?

Speaking of lights, here’s another thing walkers notice: Walking north and south is a pain. Walking at a normal pace, you hit a red light at every corner. You break into a trot sometimes, after a few blocks of the stopping and waiting, just to break the pattern, holding your pocket where your phone is. If you’re an exercise walker you know you have to cross the street and etch-a-sketch your way along to keep moving.

An hour walk is the best thing. You don’t need a gym. You don’t need a gym bag. Or a padlock. Or a membership card. You just go. An hour later you return. A different person.

“Walking . . . is how the body measures itself against the earth.”

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History Walking”