Annals of Mobility: Walking Places

By SONYA CHUNG

 

1.

In an early episode of MAD MEN, Betty Draper and her friend Francine are gossiping in Betty’s kitchen about their new neighbor, the scandalous Helen Bishop, divorcee and single mother.

Francine: Have you seen her walking, up there on tree ridge?  Where the hell is she walking to?
Betty:  (shakes her head as she smears cream cheese onto a celery stick) I don’t know.

Later, when all the ladies have gathered in the same kitchen for Sally Draper’s birthday party, they go around and share their honeymoon stories.  Helen tells them she went to Paris.

Francine: You must have loved Paris.  It’s all walking.
Helen: What do you mean?

Francine: Just that I’ve seen you… walking around the neighborhood.
Unnamed woman: I’ve seen you too.  […]  Where are you going when you do that?
Helen: No place, I just like to walk.  (the women laugh)
Francine: (confrontationally) But where?
Helen: Anywhere.  It just relaxes me.  Clears my mind.  I heard on the radio that Einstein did it.

I love this scene, the hilarious and disturbing absurdity of it—this idea that, in the affluent suburbs of the 1950s, not only was a woman ostracized for being divorced, but for walking.  Walking anywhere.  To clear her mind.  In that time and place, a woman wasn’t supposed to wander, and certainly not for the sake of her mind.  (Amusing too is the association of deviant behavior with Paris.  Oh, those French.)

Today, of course, women can walk, run, leap; run for President, serve on the front lines of military battle.  To walk or not to walk is not so much a question of gender, but of the culture of a place.  There are walking cities and there are driving cities.  What’s the biggest difference between New York and L.A.? someone asks at a party. New York is for pedestrians, LA is for cars might be the first response.  But what does it mean?  To be a place where one walks?

I wonder this especially when I consider the exciting and terrifying possibility of someday leaving New York.  (Except, of course, when I dream of moving to Paris.) There are fewer and fewer walking places, it seems to me.  When scoping out a place where I could live long-term, I think two things: what is within walking distance?  What are the routes for long walks?  A third question would be: Do people walk here? “Walking distance,” I have found, is not strictly a matter of distance, but of convention: two or three miles of city walking in a day is typical, whereas such a distance would be “unwalkable” in car-centered places. I would never want to live someplace where I would have to drive somewhere to go for a walk.  In fact, I’ve lived like that, in both affluent and poor neighborhoods; I was not happy.

 

2.

I, too, walk to clear my mind.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I walk so that my mind and my body can reacquaint.  I spend most of my days straining the organ in my head, while the rest of my body suffers hours of neglect, a lump in a chair, growing stiff and heavy as my eyes and fingers do all the brain’s bidding.  Walking—full-body motion, muscles driving breath—loosens whatever has been contracting all day in both body and mind.  Arms swing, blood pumps, I think to the rhythm of the motion.  A new mode of thought comes to life—more open, more full.  I remember things I didn’t realize I’d forgotten.  New ideas come forth, a problem from earlier suddenly sorts itself out.  I rescue myself from writing a nasty email, or an obsequious one. Priorities right themselves.  I am ready to apologize, or confess that I was hurt, or make a bold proposition.  I see or hear a character I am writing: she says something, takes action (or chooses inaction), and a piece of the impossible puzzle clicks into place.  I think sometimes: could I write an entire story while walking?  A novel? (Probably not without wandering into oncoming traffic.)

Of course there is indoor walking too, otherwise known as pacing.  I’ve fixed sentences, rearranged trains of thought, made modestly significant decisions, via pacing.  But the cool or warmth of the outdoors (also known as “fresh air”), direct sunlight, even the white noise of wherever you are, city or country­, all these constitute the pedestrian’s rich, multisensory experience. If I were a scientist, I might also say something here about Vitamin D.  More than just relaxation or “taking a break,” walking manifests philosophy: the integrated mind is mobile.

To walk for the sake of walking, without destination or ulterior purpose, is to perhaps claim a truth about the very notion of destination—to push back against the tyranny of exact answers, projected endpoints, the illusion of certainty.  But where? Francine wants to know.  Implicitly: you must be going somewhere. Wherever, the walker answers.  Or: Everywhere.

 

3.

In the developed world, walking is a luxury. With vehicles at your disposal, if you have time to walk without practical purpose, then you have leisure. Often, life is too busy to just “go for a walk”; surely there is an errand that might be accomplished en route, at the least. I’ve always had the excuse of walking the dog, but lately, the dog, now 13, is not so interested. My cover blown, I must resort to other strategies.  Just this morning, I rushed off for an appointment and then found, halfway there, that I was in fact 10 minutes early; so I hopped off the subway two stops ahead and walked the rest of the way.  (I had part 3 of this essay to think through, after all.)  In this way, I sometimes tuck my anywhere walks into interstitial spaces; I sneak them in, disguise them as multi-tasking.

But why sneak, why disguise? It’s one thing to claim your walks, to grant your prerogative to clear and integrate your mind.  It’s another thing to do so in plain sight.  Did you pick up the milk?  Call your mother?  Read your friend’s manuscript?  No, I did none of those things: I walked.  I find it difficult at times to admit this, to be caught red-handed in this choice.  Walk all you like, but when it costs you these acts of good citizenship, you may find yourself in conflict with your loved ones, or the subject of a kitchen chat.

Was Helen Bishop self-conscious about her walks?  Did it bother her that the ladies of Ossining were watching her, questioning her behavior and her purpose?  Asking: Who is she to be walking? I have always been interested in the treatment of Helen’s character: she doesn’t fit in, and it is implied that she is a neglectful mother; her son Glen is odd, creepy, maladjusted.  And yet, in later seasons, we meet Glen again, and it would seem that he is in fact a very good kid, with clear vision and a kind heart.  This son of this woman who was walking.

Visiting a small town recently, I was shuttled from place to place by car, for distances as short as five blocks. I asked if anyone attempted to live in this town without owning a car.  “Well, you could do it, I suppose.  If you really wanted to, you could manage.” In other words, It’s not really done.  I immediately thought of Helen Bishop, transported to 2013.  Have you seen her?  In my mind she was walking, walking, up on the hill, in plain sight. I laughed to myself, both amused and discomfited, imagining an unnamed woman whispering in someone’s kitchen: I mean who does she think she is – Einstein?

 

Sonya Chung, Associate Editor of The Common, is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and teaches fiction writing at Columbia University.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons

Annals of Mobility: Walking Places

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