Walk and learn

Years ago when I was still living in Virginia, my Argentine brother-in-law came to visit. Not crossing a single person as we toured the neighborhood, he insisted everyone must be on vacation. More recently, I walked about 20 blocks on a sunny spring Saturday in Denver, pop. 700,000. The only other people on foot were walking their dogs. I saw a yard sale of the accumulated excess of one house that would have filled three in most other countries. Despite the perfectly manicured yards, crack-less sidewalks and nice weather, this was not a pleasant walk. Not having a car, I felt exposed, somehow lesser, the dog-walkers looking at me curiously, like ‘Did you lose your dog?’ As I strolled past dozens of empty front porches behind fragrant rows of lavender, I knew exactly what my brother-in-law was talking about. It’s like no one is really there.

My feelings about walking are not a commentary on the need for more exercise, or the obesity problem or even the act of walking per se. There is a bigger picture here that I fear is hard to see from inside the frame. It’s about what we’re missing by not walking; and what we’re losing along the way: our ability to coexist. And hey, I know there are exceptions, neighborhoods of neighborly people where they do ‘front-porch Fridays.’ I once lived in one of those places. The very same one that shocked my brother-in-law, which I fervently defended at the time as a unique community of friendly neighbors who made good use of its sidewalks. I could not see it through his eyes used to people walking from corner vegetable stands, kiosks, shoe repair shops to butchers, hardwares, etc. on every block. And of course there are a few truly urban US cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, where people walk regularly to do their shopping, buy the paper, take the cat to the vet, get where they’re going. But in the vast majority of US cities, towns and neighborhoods, they don’t.

It is the sense of oddity, even suspicion, surrounding the act of walking in these places that concerns me. My husband, walking home from the library at dusk in small-town USA, his satchel of books over his shoulder, was once harassed by two guys in a pick-up, ‘Hey, faggot, get a car!’ A police car flashed its siren and pulled up to stop a friend’s father on a stroll through a Dallas suburb, ‘Sir, is there a problem?’ Another friend describes a guy she recently met in LA: ‘He’s great in every way, except he doesn’t have a car, which is just weird.’ Just last year, two siblings walking home from a playground two blocks from their home in Silver Springs, Maryland were picked up by the police; their parents were accused of negligence and social services called in. Incidents like these are beyond baffling to people from just about anywhere else in the world. Because in any city of any size in Europe, Latin America, Asia, wherever, walking is a natural part of life for everyone. The exercise is just a fringe benefit. Of course people in all of these places also take public transportation, bike and some even drive. But there is no stigma attached to one form of getting around as opposed to another. How people move around is not a measure of social hierarchy.

In the US, however, car culture is pervasive to the point of rendering all other means of transportation somehow inferior, with walking being the lowliest form. Who walks? Poor people, black people, homeless people. Foreigners. Or the fools who suffer big, crowded cities and surely long to move someplace where they can drive and never worry about finding a parking place, right? The lone walker, unless clearly dressed in expensive athletic gear, or attached to a dog, is cause for alarm. Because why would you? There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Madmen, set in the early sixties, where the women are gossiping about a new divorcee in the neighborhood. They fixate on the fact that she’s always walking. Where is she going? Why is she always walking? As a measure of social norms way back then, the scene gives some sense of the historical dimension of what I’m talking about. She is an outlier, a rule-breaker — a divorcee, for god’s sake. She is a threat to their perfect suburban landscape.

While European cities took shape around pedestrian paths laid centuries before the invention of cars, the US concept of urban planning has been built upon the notion of individual freedom of movement by car. Our highways, suburbs and massive shade-less parking lots are an ode to that freedom. Like the mind-numbing sameness of suburbia, the hermetic seals on everyone’s individual mode of transportation for the past 70 years or so has taken a toll on our tolerance for each other, for our differences, even for our perception of climate change. From inside the acclimatized “freedom” of our comfy individual spaces, we have become both unable to tolerate extreme temperatures and at the same time able to ignore them. The same goes for other kinds of people.

It is hard not to see the implications of this drive-by culture of insensitivity reflected in the current state of US politics. Look no further than the current president, who recently took a golf cart up the hill in beautiful Taormina, Italy, while all the other NATO members walked together, taking in the breathtaking view and getting to know each other. This is the face we show to the world in our unparalleled freedom to drive by with the windows up.

I now live in Buenos Aires, a big, crowded city of millions at the other end of the planet. I walk, a lot. I also bike or take the bus or subway to get where I’m going. I generally have to allot several hours of my day for these journeys. It is often uncomfortable — hot, crowded, smelly, noisy — but I have learned to live with the inconveniences of broken sidewalks, exhaust fumes in my face or the human crush on public transportation at rush hour. And I have learned to observe, the good and the bad. Sometimes I get inspired and take a whole series of pictures of doorways.

Or I come up with an idea for an article about walking. A particular walking obstacle that many foreigners living here complain about is how Argentines always walk side-by-side instead of single file, making it impossible to pass them. How inconsiderate, right? The thing is, here it’s considered extremely rude to give your back to a friend, so that’s why people always walk abreast. It took me a while to come to this realization, but all that time walking and thinking about it as I try to get around them gave me the answer. So who’s to say whose version of inconsiderate is the right one?

Something else I’ve learned is that every time I take a street on the opposite side, I end up noticing something I’d passed dozens of times unawares. There’s a nice old house with typical Italianate details and ironwork that I always pass on my bike. Today I walked down the other side of that street and saw that the house has a fantastic second floor, set back from the façade, clad in very modern, dark wood slats that look like some Finnish spa. The combination of styles is fantastic. Or on my last visit back to the US, I discovered a historic public bathhouse that I’d never noticed on a street I’d driven down hundreds of times in Richmond, VA when I used to live there. I never knew it used to be full of public bathhouses.

I asked for walking stories from friends:

As I take my morning walk or run to buy my $5 cup of coffee in this nation’s capital, there is a particular homeless woman I pass throughout the seasons. Sometimes she’s sleeping on the metro grate in winter to catch the warm air rising, sometimes she’s collecting leftovers from the trash of high-end dinners of the night before. The other day on a warm summer morning, I noticed she had just finished bathing and washing her clothes in the public kids’ water fountain. I stopped to speak to her and her words for that morning were that the weather and life were wonderful and what more could she ask for!

For any long-time resident in one place, walks are an experience with historical accumulation: the mandala marking a late-night murder; the fading political graffiti from two cycles ago; the plaque on the branch library celebrating a local civil rights heroine. My favorite invisible story lies in front of the disability center, where the sidewalk looks like any other, but has very slightly different surface finishes. The wheelchairs and everyone else take diagonal shortcuts without a thought. But the blind customers follow the more polished path, which takes predictable right angles to the front door.

It is these snapshots of the lives of others that we miss entirely from inside a car.

My mother lives in a small town in Colorado. She is 81 and no longer driving. She describes this as a ‘punishment, like being in jail.’ Unwilling to use the taxi service or town shuttle (miraculous in its mere existence), she is forced to walk for the first time in her life. I can only hope she benefits, but the sad truth is I know she won’t be passing many others along the way and will likely be viewed with pity.

Car culture in the US is one small piece in the short history of seemingly benign developments that society has taken for granted as just one more convenience. But there are social consequences. It’s so easy to just drive past the guy holding a “Need Work” sign at the stoplight, you barely need to look at him. But in the time it takes to walk past a homeless person, you might just notice — like my friend with his expensive cup of coffee — how neatly they’ve arranged their belongings under the bridge, or that they’re shivering, or you see the color of their eyes. If any of these things causes to you consider that person’s predicament, even for a few seconds, you are that much closer to empathy than you would have been speeding past in your car. Walking takes longer, requires more effort and patience. But it puts us at eye-level with other human beings of all sorts. There is so much to see if you take the time to walk.

Daytrip

 

Image

Every once in a while, usually when I’m feeling like the kind of person I’d like to hang out with, or sometimes when I’m blue, I indulge in a quiet Saturday afternoon date with myself and go alone to the movies. On this particular Saturday in Buenos Aires, I choose to venture out to the Arteplex cinema in Belgrano, far on the other side of the city. Because it is quite a journey and looking a bit like rain, instead of biking I decide to do a combination of city transit, taking the 141 bus to Plaza Italia and then the Subte out to Congreso, the last stop on the D-line.

 

I

Clown boards bus bearing beat-up guitar. His attire is accurate but filthy: high-waisted, green plaid pants sag from suspenders above exposed, flip-flopped feet. Gnarled, cracked, crusty dirt-brown feet—too brown to match hands on guitar. White face-paint grayish with traffic grime suggests several days of wear. Circle around clown features reveals outer regions of naked face: high forehead, steel-wool hair awry, pushed back with headband sprouting sad, plastic flower which may or may not squirt tears. He lays his pitch on us, monotone and sad, as if way more skeptical than his audience.

Damas y caballeros, and especially all you kids (there were none on the bus), I’ve come to brighten your day. Hope you’re all having fun. Pardon the bother, I’ll just sing a ditty or two. Brought my whole band along (shows us his harmonica as he anchors it around his neck). Yes, we’re a one-man band. Again, please pardon the intrusion, hope you enjoy the show, then I’ll be right on my way, chicos.”

I kick myself for not bringing my iPod. Then again, he does seem to be taking his whole act very seriously with all the preparations and is entirely consistent with the sadness concept, I’ll give him that. And I also have to admit that blasting my headphones to drown out all nuisances around me in recent months is taking its toll on my hearing. Perhaps it’s best to give the man a chance.

Guitar rings true, rockabilly sound, voice channeling Elvis, deep, wide like an unpolluted river of pure sound. Disconcerting, real concert. Sounds like English, but not quite. More like that video of What English Sounds Like to Non-English Speakers—the one where the only decipherable word is “squirrel”. The phonetics are all right, the intonation, pauses in the natural places, only the words are not quite words. They are a melodious approximation. Then the harmonica jumps in: in and out chuffing blues, Memphis on a bus in Buenos Aires.

“Thank you very much (no longer Elvis). That was one from the archives. Traveling across the ocean back to my origins, now we’ll visit Italy.”

I have no idea what song he’s belting out in Italian, but at least he seems to be getting the language right on this one. It feels authentically 1950s Mediterranean, like something Marcelo sang to Sofia. On a Vespa. All pencil-thin pants, loafers no socks and cleavage. By the time I get to this image, I realize I’ve been hauled into the music, completely sold on it, but having a really hard time with the clown act. The 141 show takes a bow, passes his hat, I give him a fiver and almost tell him, “Lose the make-up, it’s distracting, have some self-respect. You are amazing.” Almost.

 

II

I exit the bus right after it turns off Scalabrini Ortiz and onto Santa Fe. I am at the gate of the Botanical Gardens, an abiding memory of the first time I ever came to Buenos Aires. I was a tourist then. I check my watch and decide I have time for a walk through. No longer a tourist, like people who live in cities with Eiffel towers or Empire State buildings, I have relegated these gardens to the category of places for visitors who stroll with their hands clasped behind their backs, gazing around with half-smiles and taking-it-all-in blank expressions on their faces. I have never understood the hands behind the back.

Like so many places in Buenos Aires, these gardens are a relic of the city’s glorious past, a lush piece of turn-of-the-20th-century landscaping and statuary—a reminder that this level of sophistication was once the norm. In a way it is a time capsule. But then again, I don’t come here often enough and perhaps things are not quite encapsulated. Today what I first see are fathers and little boys, enthusiastically pulling on hands to take them to see carnivorous plants. Couples on benches, legs stretched out, ankles crossed, intimately reading side by side. Venus rising out of a litter-free pond of lilies, so serene, I make a mental note to come back and sketch her. A path that pulls me along, leading me to ground-level vats teeming with strange, snaking aquatic plants. Down and around I come up behind the main building, see Saturnalia snapped in mid-action, preserved in bronze—a worthy welcome committee for visitors to the tiny, children’s green library on the back corner of the red-bricked Victorian visitor’s center. The library has a carpet of believable faux grass and I imagine the books on its shelves are filled with stories of plants, sustainable ways, garden fairies, forts made of fallen trees and discarded bits of this and that—a reason to come back another day, sit on the grassy rug reading children’s green lit and spend the whole afternoon exploring the silent wonder of these gardens. Today time is running short: I have a movie to catch.

 

III

I step out of these imaginings and onto the subway platform at Plaza Italia. Just as the doors are closing, a young man struggles to get on with a keyboard and speaker on a cart. Top right forearm riddled with scars on scars, not accidental—intentional, random, mean razorblade hatch-marks. My brain cannot conjure the horror of their origin, so I look at his face instead: protruding front teeth, freshly scarred upper lip, maybe from a punch, or maybe just a skateboard accident. The braces on his teeth are somehow in disharmony with all his broken parts; braces mean fixing, future, caring. Then too, he is clean and neatly dressed, so someone cares.

He removes the keyboard from the trolley and places it on the subway floor. It is a mirror of himself: cracked, patched, duct-taped. And amplified. He plugs in and flops down on the floor, not on his knees: butt on the floor, legs splayed at odd angles to one side like a kid about to play with his Legos. He fully occupies the space in front of the doors, making it impossible for anyone to enter or exit and further highlighting his blatant, genuine lack of shame. He starts to play and everything else fades to black in that moment. Bach, Beethoven, flawless Rachmaninoff flying over the keys. On the floor, on a beat-up plastic Yamaha, brandishing scars on the D-line to Congreso. This is Buenos Aires.

I have to get off even though I’d rather continue. I give him a much bigger tip than the clown, not because he deserved more—half of it was my guilt for not giving the clown more, for not having openly congratulated either of them for their talent, for not thanking them for the music. But mostly for presuming they’d be too loud, too predictable, too hard to drown out, too in my face. Perhaps someone will make a movie about the countless characters like these on public transit in Buenos Aires. Because sometimes you set off on a quiet solo trip to the cinema not wanting to be disturbed only to discover that what happens along the way is a story worth telling.