A few nights ago, en route to a friend’s house, I drove down our dark hill and nearly into a man who was dressed like a flashlight.
More accurately, he had a flashlight strapped to his head, as though he’d just emerged from a cave or ten thousand leagues beneath the sea. He wore a neon reflector vest – the kind favored by retired women who decide to spend their last few active years herding young children to and from school. I slowed down as I passed, and perhaps unwisely, spent the next few minutes observing him in my right rear view mirror rather than the road ahead.
The night threatened to swallow him whole, but because of his neon-garb and my tail lights, I could make out his militant movements. He marched rather than walked, arms bent and swinging at a rigid right angle, knobby knees doing their spindly best to propel him forward. Even though I could not see his face, his manner and dress belied his expression: I imagined a thick brow with a few white hairs furrowed over resolute eyes. This was his walk, his version of an exercise performed by the millions who find running to strenuous, swimming too wet, hot yoga too hot, golf to slow, and basketball, tennis, and all the other court sports too violent on the kneecaps. This man, anonymous though brightly lit, had promised himself to live well into old age.
It has now been nearly a year since I visited Ben at Stanford, where on a misty Saturday morning, we discussed the benefits of walking. We were on a tree-lined road that led to his office and I remarked upon the beauty of the road.
“Ah yeah,” he said absentmindedly. Then looking up, he seemed to take in the road for the first time.
“It is nice,” he said.
We walked in silence for a few moments and I, wanting to sound dreamy and curious (though in truth at the time, around him I was all those things), asked, “Do you like walking?”
“I do,” he said, and I nodded in agreement, about to share with him that I preferred walking because it meant I didn’t have to dole out extra time expressly for exercise. Time was plentiful for an unmotivated English major, but I refused to waste a minute of it sweating in a gym. As it was, I walked nearly a mile to and from school, half of it uphill. But Ben began to make a circular motion with his left index finger, referring, I supposed, to his mind.
“It’s a good time for me to organize my thoughts,” he said, his eyes focusing on something cerebral and thus invisible to me. He drew circles with his finger in the air before him, as though he were tuning his brainwaves, where data was neatly arranged in not gray, but diamond matter.
I nodded to show him I understood, and I suppose on some level I did – but I was then astonished by his oblivion to his surroundings. (Later, he would mention that he liked long drives for the same reason but that he would often forget to mind the road. Walking was safer – at least for other pedestrians). I walked, at least in cities from New York to Taipei to Berkeley, to make myself feel a part of the world. He walked almost as a means to remove himself. I walked to learn. I studied buildings, homes, often standing on my toes to peek into people’s living rooms and, if I could, study the art on their walls and their bookshelves. It was a fun if pointless guessing game. I followed certain people because of the peculiar way they were dressed, or because of the confidence with which they carried themselves and, more often than not, because they were handsome or beautiful and like magnets, their aura intrigued me. I bent down to smell flowers and raised my hand to feel the velvety petals of strangers’ rose gardens. And mostly, I eavesdropped. Much of what I have learned about people has come from things I was not supposed to hear. I consider myself a reader, and walking was another way of reading a book written by the movements of the city.
When I moved home from school, it was a difficult adjustment both to walk by myself in our quiet suburban streets and because of my work schedule, to walk in the evening, without the sun shining. Back home in the steadfast scenery of my hometown (little has changed since we moved here in 1998), I began to understand what Ben meant. Almost by default of visual thirst, my gaze was forced to redirect itself inward. There is no more city to see. No more buses to wait for or shop windows to lust after or handsome swimmers to trail behind en route to Shakespeare. There are no decrepit bums to assault the nostrils and evoke both pity and disgust, and no conversations between CS/MCB/Philosophy majors to puzzle over. There are only large homes on hills with windows too high for me to look into and the three or four other walkers or joggers in the evening, from whom little, if any noise, emits.
I am still a reader. Is this where I come from? Indeed. Is this where I grew up? Yes, so it appears. I know this road. I know these houses. Here is the house where I met Blair, my first friend in Villa Park, who taught me how to climb trees and eat crab apples. She moved away after the sixth grade and a Chinese man with his beautiful wife of Scandinavian descent moved in. She was a beautiful platinum blond who tended to her rose garden in a sports bra. One afternoon a strange man knocked on her door. The maid let him in. He went upstairs and shot the blond woman through the heart. The maid called the police a half hour later.
There is the beautiful house with the lead-latticed windows where there lived an old Indian man who dressed in all white and wore a turban, and who, with a firm grip on a sturdy cane, walked slowly around the block every day until the week of his death. He was one hundred. On his deathbed many of his relatives asked him his secret: what made him live so long and without pain? With his last strength he waved at his cane and said, “Walking.”
I know this road, far better than any other I’ve walked.
On certain days of the week I walk with a friend, always female, and these walks turn into verbal ambulations as well. The length of the walk varies depending on whom I walk with, but the conversation hardly so: young women, all of us English majors, talk invariably of three things: family, friends, and men – though in truth it is all one thing: relationships. We spend the hour or so first recounting our weekends and then wondering why our professors, bosses, classmates, colleagues and ex-boyfriends refused to love us back when clearly, we were their soul mates. And though we talk more, the essence of the walk, of my walk, is the same. We look out to see in. And sometimes we sit or stand on the driveway for half an hour longer, our legs long worn out from the walk but our dreams and anxieties more robust than ever.
“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” ~Henry David Thoreau