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The ministry of silly walks

October 17, 2011

On my way home from work, there is a brass eagle in front of the door to an office building on Madison Avenue just above the park. It’s about life size and sits on a low pedestal so its head comes up about to my waist. It looks like it’s been there a long while, but I’m not sure what its purpose is. I stare it in the eye every day when I walk by. Mostly, though, the eagle is ignored by the people bustling around it. He’s very beautiful, but he’s below eye level, so hard to see in a crowd. Today on my way home, I watched a man in a suit holding a leather briefcase, a man who looked old enough to know better, cross over the sidewalk so he could pat the bird on the head as he walked by. It made me smile.

There’s a real art to navigating the streets of New York, and I don’t just mean the way you time your steps to always catch the green lights or the way you triangulate a million pedestrian paths at once and sail through without bumping into anyone and it’s some kind of miracle. I mean the way you keep yourself feeling like you matter. There is so much going on without you that it’s easy to feel insignificant. There are so many beautiful people that it’s easy to feel ugly.

I’ve gained some weight since starting this job. It’s not surprising. Although I walk a lot when I’m in New York, I have less free time to exercise and I spend a lot more time sitting. And I have a job that often involves taking people out to lunch. Not that this last one is a major hardship, mind. But I work in the French Restaurant District, so even when I try to stick to salad and espresso, there is inevitably butter and a tin pail of frites. I’m working on it, but I’m not feeling too great about myself right now. So when I got up this morning to prepare for a 10 a.m. meeting at the Toy Factory that I was very nervous about, trying to figure out what to wear did not help my self-confidence. But when I started walking to work in my battered old trench coat with the holes I hope no one can see, surrounded by tall skinny blondes with $800 shoes, I had to shake myself out of it. For some reason, I started thinking about “Singin’ in the Rain” and the way Gene Kelly starts walking down the street and looks more and more like he can’t contain his urge to dance until all of a sudden he is dancing. I wondered what it would be like to walk down the street like that. I was still walking — I didn’t actually dance up Fifth Avenue. But I walked thinking that I could dance at any minute. And you know what? It made me feel better. It was certainly a hell of a lot more fun. Maybe that’s the trick. Dancing in your head. By the time I got to the office, I ruled the world.

There’s a long loop of a walk I like to take at home when I have the time. It goes through woods and town and along the river. In between the railroad tracks and the country club, there’s a small industrial park with a tidy curb that runs along a pocket of marsh that is always full of red-winged blackbirds and frogs in the summertime. There’s something about that curb. By the time I get there — it’s about halfway round the loop — I always have an unbearable urge to walk with one foot in the street and one up on the curb, lurching along like I have a peg leg the way I used to like to do when I was 6 or 7. Most of the time I convince myself that I can’t do it. It’s unseemly. There’s a fine line between having an imagination and being a sociopath. But sometimes I say the hell with it and I do my lopsided walk along the curb until the sidewalk runs out and I’m turned loose in the street on my own flat feet again. I’m not sure what the appeal is. Maybe it’s remembering what it’s like to be a kid. But I suspect it’s also about putting myself in the picture, testing out my body’s relationship with the world it inhabits. It’s easy to hide behind books and headphones, to duck your eyes for fear of seeing something in someone else’s face. The peg leg walk is safer. So is running my hand along the rungs of the fence on West 12th Street. So is the way I always look in the window of Elephi’s house and think about the “Presbyterian children” when I pass the church on the corner.

[The windows on the building really look like that]

It’s not quite carving my name on the lamppost or taking a can of spraypaint and tagging the side of one of the vans that carries supplies to the coffee carts that line Fifth Avenue every morning. It’s more like tucking a secret message inside a library book or hiding something special under a rock in the park for someone else to find. But it’s a tiny bit of ground I’ve declared my own and I’ll be sure to remember it when I pass through the next time, whether I’m walking on one foot or two.

My presentation, by the way, kicked ass.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2011 1:08 am

    It was not unusual to see people stroke the feet of pairs of lions sitting outside such places as the Bank of China or the HSBC headquarters (on the Des Vouex Road) side in the belief that luck and money would come to them by doing so. I wonder if patting that eagle carries a similar significance.

  2. October 18, 2011 8:58 am

    As Lemming always tells me, it doesn’t matter what your clothes look like. You have more presence than an $800 pair of shoes can give any of those ubiquitous blondes. And of course your presentation kicked ass!

    Also, I adore this line: “There’s a fine line between having an imagination and being a sociopath.” yes.

  3. Cranky permalink
    October 18, 2011 9:36 am

    Yesterday morning, one of the ugliest men I’ve ever seen called me an “ugly woman” and I laughed and told him that he says the nicest things. He looked alarmed. And yes, it is good to be an imaginative non-sociopath at these times.

  4. October 18, 2011 10:12 am

    Ha. Glad your presentation kicked ass. That’s more important than a pair of shoes that cost a month’s rent. Seriously.

  5. October 18, 2011 11:49 am

    You’re reminding me what I dislike about cities… how can people commute in $800 shoes?

  6. October 18, 2011 12:27 pm

    Ah, FreshHell, but that rent was *only* $800.

    Glad you kicked ass in your presentation.

  7. October 18, 2011 7:30 pm

    It may be good luck. Or it may be that the bird just looks like it’s asking for a pat on the head. I’ve almost done it many times. Cranky, oy. But that’s the best possible response, I think. I never think of things like that in the moment. Claudia, that’s about a week’s rent around here. Lemming, if you could see the shoes, you’d wonder even more. I see more women walking to work in 4-5 inch heels and I wonder how on earth that is possible. I come home with blisters from my most comfortable shoes. And Magpie, that is, indeed, a bargain in this neighborhood.

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