January 15, 2015

A hostile civilization

I like to walk. A lot. I prefer it, actually, to driving or riding or whatever. It gives me time to think, things to look at, a greater awareness of the space around me, as well as giving me a goodish bit of exercise, on occasion.

I think you can see this in my books, sometimes: I like to imagine that same attention I give the world (or the attention I hope I give the world) when I walk is on display when my characters look at their own world.

However, increasingly in America, walking is a lost concept. The idea of walking to work, or school, or to the store is, in many cities, simply unfathomable. We’ve come to accept that the outside world is for automobiles, and to inject the vulnerable human form into this environment is not only a violation, but dangerous, even downright immoral.

Hence why parents who let their children walk – walk anywhere, any time, for any reason – are immediately suspected to be bad parents. Nevermind that our grandparents likely walked to school and to work and downtown and wherever else. Nevermind that previous generations probably walked a great deal farther than even that. With the car comes danger, and with danger comes suspicion. One presumes the default state of any outside space in our civilized world is hostile. In some ways, we’re permanently on hostile territory.

This is why, I think, we look to cities and developers to give us regions and spaces and enclosures where we can safely be outside, free from threat, free to walk or run – things like parks and downtown markets and courtyards, pieces of the outside world that have been carved out and set aside for us to enjoy.

The rest of the outside world – streets, alleys, highways, parking lots – these are distinctly not ours. Police on duty during a protest will be quick to make that point: you’re free to do and say what you like, on the sidewalk – but you’re not allowed to do it in the street. The streets of your city are quite literally not your own. For us to be there, on our feet, is a broach of decorum.

Worse, in some places it’s almost impossible. I remember staying in a hotel in Houston, and deciding I wanted to walk down the street to the gas station to pick something up. However, I couldn’t find any sidewalk out of the hotel parking lot. There was just a line of dense, impenetrable shrubbery around the entirety of the lot. The only entrance and exit to the parking lot, as well as the whole of the hotel, was through the driveway to a very busy road.

It seemed the planners had assumed that if people weren’t in the hotel, then they would be in their car. In places like this in modern America, the landscape of civilization no longer speaks the language of the human body. One is reminded of the Bradbury story The Pedestrian.

With this design choice comes skyrocketing obesity and diabetes, children who default to playing indoors in front of the television rather than outside. But we were built to be on our feet – some even claim that “Sitting is the New Smoking.” Governments try to amend this with things like 10,000 Steps a Day campaigns, and companies encourage their employees to use devices to record their steps, making a fun competition out of it.

But where are they going to walk? The most common answer is indoors, at the gym or at the mall. Certainly not outside.

*

A long time ago, when I was working at my very first job after college, I locked my keys in my car. I needed to find an ATM to get money to pay for a lock service, but, since I didn’t have a car, I had to walk to go find one.

This normally wouldn’t have been an issue, except that my workplace was at the intersection of two gigantic, incredibly busy highways.

I set off, walking across spaces not meant for people to move through, nor even see: ditches and gulleys and alleys and the undersides of overpasses. It proved surprisingly hard to find an ATM: I went to a Bennigan’s and a Chile’s and a few car dealerships. But I found, to my surprise, that I enjoyed the experience. It was a cool spring day, and it was weirdly thrilling to do this, not only seeing the underside of this vast transportation infrastructure and all its interstitial little parts, but also to break the rules – and that was what it felt like.

I was outside of the network, outside of the system, watching all these cars and trucks hurtling by. These people were trapped in their cars and on the roads, but I wasn’t. In a weird way, by being powerless, and carless, I had found a strange sense of being free.

It was at that moment that I realized I didn’t much like my job – it was a data entry job, where I’d sit and type addresses into a computer – and I’d saved up enough money for it not to matter. So I decided I’d quit sometime soon, and find something better.

And that was basically what I did.

*

Walking is good for a lot of reasons. One good reason is that, unlike every other form of transportation, there’s no pre-set system to walking, no predesignated places for where you can and cannot go. If your legs can take you there, you can walk there. And I think this not only helps the body, but it also helps the mind.

I try and walk at least two to three miles a day now. Not necessarily for my health. Perhaps more to remind myself that I live in a big place with lots of things in it. One needn’t limit one’s self to anything.