Thursday, May 6, 2010


          He wore a white clerical collar but otherwise dressed entirely in black — shirt, trousers, shoes — which I assumed was in keeping with the code of his religion. He also carried, even on sunny days (as if the cloudless skies were not to be trusted) a black umbrella tucked under his arm. A slightly-built man, he moved rapidly along Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, near where I lived, his short, efficient steps like the mile-devouring gait of a Kenyan marathoner. I often saw this distinctive figure — sometimes from my car, sometimes when we passed one another on the sidewalk — making his solitary journey. A walker, I thought.
          He had the face of a martyr: cheeks sunken, brows knitted and lips pursed in a severe line. His black eyes looked directly forward, not glancing at anybody or anything. All this suggested absorption in a matter of consuming importance.
          About three miles up Carrollton Avenue is the Notre Dame Seminary, which I took to be the place he left and returned to. It’s a huge old brick building done in a lofty, sweeping style. The expansive grounds surrounding it have statuary and majestic trees. I wondered what his role was in such a setting. The Seminary is a theological school for the training of priests. Not only was he older than a typical student, probably well in his forties, but he already had his white collar. I could not conceive of him as a teacher. Even if he were capable of lecturing to a class, I suspected that his text — the woven thing he was working on in his walks — would be of too harsh a texture for the young.
          I concluded that he was a troubled man of the clothe who was allowed sanctuary in the seminary. There was surely a back entrance by which he could come and go. I visualized his room as a simply-furnished cell. A narrow cot with a faded black blanket and a single pillow, and above it a cross with the crucified Christ.
          I moved from the neighborhood and didn’t visit that area often. Whenever I did I was on the lookout, but over five years went by before I saw him again. I drove a few blocks ahead, got out of my car, and walked back. As we drew near I observed that he was thinner, his face more ravaged than time warranted. And his gait, though still swift, had a peculiar jerkiness to it, as if an inner mechanism were wearing down. He did not look at me as we passed; he never had.
          He displayed all the characteristics of a walker — of the type of human I classify by that name. The walking itself, in its regularity and in the distance covered, was obsessive. It was done alone; walkers are solitary people. They are different from exercisers, though they belong to the same species. But runners, bike riders and those who walk as part of a health regime are moving with a practical purpose. They are comprehensible to us. They expound to others — they even write books — about the benefits to be derived from their exercise. If a walker wrote about his walking it might be a confession, an indictment, a treatise, an elegy. It would not be about the walking itself. Theirs is an inner compulsion, and no stopwatch can capture what they seek.
          When I moved it was across the lake from New Orleans to a small town on the Tchefuncte River. This town had a walker in residence, one everybody knew. He was, of course, simply referred to as The Walker. His presence was part of a controversy. The owner of an old rooming house had contracted with a government agency; people from mental institutions, who were deemed fit, moved into these rooms. They were to receive care and supervision and eventually make reentry into the community. The townsfolk were not happy about having this thrust upon them. They believed that a threat existed but were barred, back when this happened, from learning anything about the residents (child molester? mass murderer?). They suspected that the owner (who was steadfastly uncooperative) gave little care or supervision. I drove past the place quite often; it looked tidy from the outside, though the shades were always drawn. I never saw anyone emerge from the house nor go in; the only resident I saw — and I saw him on the streets every day — was The Walker.
          He was one of those people classified as “black” when his complexion was a blend of races, none predominating. He didn’t shave, and for him the result was a beard that was sparse in some spots but dense on the chin and under the ridge of the jaw. He always wore the same clothe cap and multi-colored jacket, even on the hottest days. They were ragged, as were his baggy-kneed trousers. He wore sneakers, also ragged. His age was indeterminate; he could be thirty-five or fifty-five.
          He was of medium size, but his stride, although leisurely, had such smooth power that it gave him a regal bearing, almost an aura of arrogance. It negated everything else. Since the town was small he traversed all the streets in a day, again and again. Not for him to be holed up in a little room; he roamed free. It was said that, if he came across someone working in their yard, he was not above talking to them. Not with them — he would expound on a learned topic, such as a theory proposed by Hegel, then move on with a courteous nod. I once saw him stop to speak to an alderman of the town; later that day I met up with this man, and I asked about the encounter. “He informed me that his personal yacht was due to arrive tomorrow afternoon, and he wanted me to make sure that there’d be a forty foot docking berth reserved for it. I told him that I would certainly arrange that, and he thanked me and walked away.”
          After I had been in town three or four years, The Walker went into a precipitous decline. I didn’t see him for weeks; when he emerged he was drastically thinner, and his once-grand stride was a painful shuffle. Still, he walked. He improved a bit, then worsened. Near the end he used a cane he had fashioned out of a tree limb. He must have rubbed the wood with some type of oil, for the convoluted grain gave off an amber glow. His gaunt face was now almost totally obscured; he pulled the cap to his downcast eyes and raised the collars of the coat like flaps. He must walk, but he was hiding from others. Was it his pride, trying to avoid any pitying look? The rumor was that he had cancer and refused treatment. Finally he disappeared from our streets forever. I was told that he died in his room.
          There is something primeval about walkers — for what is more elemental than to walk under the sky? In this modern world of cars and anti-depressants, walkers display a raw humanity. I think there were more of them in the past, though they may have withdrawn to vast, impersonal cities, where they can exist in anonymity. I suspect that many wish no intrusion from the scrutiny of others.
          That is certainly the case with my last walker, a woman. I observe her where I live now, in a semi-rural area. She walks on River Road in Covington — walks on the road itself, because there is no sidewalk — and it is dangerous. The road is narrow, there are steep ditches on both sides, and the traffic, though light, tends to speed. When I drive by her I veer far into the other lane, and so she tolerates me, with head averted. But in the case of cars that don’t give her such a wide berth she retreats onto the verge of weeds before the fall-off of the ditch. She looks at the vehicle with a face distorted by distress and fury.
          There need be no car to provoke her. She passes along the front of my property, and I watch, unnoticed, shielded by vegetation. Believing herself to be alone, she carries on an angry discourse. I hear her voice but cannot make out words. Sometimes she gestures with her arms. Her face displays all the emotions of a terrible argument.
          And yet, despite her expression of pain and condemnation, she retains, in her forties, an element of beauty. There is something fine about the structure of her face. She is tall and slender and walks with a graceful stride. She dresses elegantly; it may be a greenish-gold silk blouse, a loose green skirt that ends halfway down her calves, leather shoes with low heels. She always carries a purse hanging from a shoulder strap. Even driving by, I sense that everything was bought at the best shops, but long ago.
          I can imagine her, if things were different, coming out of a restaurant on New York’s East Side after lunch with a friend. Laughing, parting, she would walk — free of her terrible emotions — along a street of brownstones, and she would not be out of place in that exclusive setting. Indeed, there must be money in her life. The residences that border the river side of the road are estates, with winding gravel driveways leading to hidden houses. I happened to pass by once when she turned into one of those driveways.
          She frequently disappears, sometimes for a week, even a month. I suspect a crisis that necessitates a sedated confinement or a stay at an expensive facility. When I see her again it is with a sense of relief, for I believe she is free to let her emotions out only when walking her walk of anger. Part of her distress at the passing cars is that her privacy is violated and she is momentarily exposed, vulnerable to the world, on the brink of a fall.
          Are all walkers mad? Not necessarily; not all; not completely. I was a walker, for many years, but I am one no longer. I don’t believe it was madness that forced me from my room and onto the streets of cities. Though to be confined was no longer tolerable. There is, within all walkers, an energy — physical, mental, sexual, emotional, creative — that must be appeased. So they set out, and distance is a consolation. Their thoughts and feelings can be dissipated into space, can be blunted by contact with whatever objects they pass — trees, people, buildings. The desire of walkers is to return at last to their homes, to their lairs, with body and mind worn down to submission. Maybe it is a way to stave off madness.
          As for creative energy, many people of genius were walkers: Beethoven, Whitman, Kierkegaard, Van Gogh, Dickens. I know this when I come across a telltale description in a biography (Van Gogh: “a constant and prodigious walker”) or when I see a line of their writing (Dickens: “If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should explode and perish.”).
          Walkers are engaged in intense personal dramas. What are those dramas? In the case of my three walkers, I do not know; I can merely suppose. The one person I have insight into is myself, and I choose not to reveal what drove me onto the streets. Anyway, it’s over, that phase of my life. For many years I continued to set out on my journey in dreams, and I did so with a feeling of elation. But now that too has ended.

1 comment:

jimmy scoville said...

I really enjoyed this piece. It made me think of the difference in attitude towards walking. I always walk to get someplace. I used to like to work a mile to a couple miles from my apartment, so I could walk that everyday - or most days. I would scout other routes to get to the same destinations, really learning about the neighborhoods. I never used walking for exercise. That was for jogging. Keep up the Steps!