Monday, August 30, 2010

No Thanks, I’ll Walk: Thoughts on Being a Pedestrian

I have never had a car. I have a driver’s license (and it cost me a great deal of stress to obtain it, which is why I don’t let it expire), but I have not driven in almost a decade. I was a terrible driver back then and I have no reason to believe I’d be any better at it now. So I have hoofed it through college, a job in the inner city, two lengthy trips abroad, and going on four years of graduate school. So I think I have some claim to the self-professed title of “consummate pedestrian.” But sometimes, I think the title ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At the top of the list of Reasons Why Sensible People Choose to Drive is the safety factor. I’m not talking about being mugged, though I suppose you’re more likely to attract a mugger while on foot than while zooming by in an SUV (I should note I lived a whole year in one of the worst parts of Philadelphia and never met a pickpocket or mugger—people are usually more harmless than we’re led to believe). I’m talking from the perspective of the girl who got hit by a minivan while crossing the street four years ago. Okay, I was jay-walking, but still, somehow I think the damage would have been less if there’d been a car surrounding me at the time. I still got a ticket for the incident, so clearly it’s all the same in the eyes of the law.

Second to safety, I suppose time is the next factor. Everything takes more time when you have to walk or take the bus. Grocery shopping is particularly epic. Harris Teeter is less than three miles from my apartment, yet I have to walk to campus to catch the bus, wait for the bus (which never runs on time), take the bus all the way to the end of its tortuous and ambling route, do my shopping with a hand-basket instead of a cart to make sure I’ll be able to carry everything back home, and then repeat the whole bus process in reverse. All in all, it usually takes over two hours, door-to-door-to-door to get a half-gallon of milk into my refrigerator every week. One guaranteed way to exasperate me is to ask me to bring a watermelon to a dinner party. I tried it once. It was exhausting. And I don’t even like watermelon.

Another consideration is what walking does to your body even if you DON’T get crunched up by a minivan. The possibilities of heat exhaustion, sunburn, and (at least in Iceland) windburn become serious considerations in whether you decide to attend functions or not. Temperature dictates when you leave the house; I remain a little bemused by car-owners who complain about having to run errands “in the heat of the day” when for 90% of the time they are enclosed in a nice, comfy, air-conditioned vehicle designed to prevent them from working up a sweat. Besides all that, my feet are half a size bigger now, after a decade of walking, than they were when I graduated high school. I can’t maintain a pair of socks longer than a month because I walk right through the heels (other people apparently walk through the toes—I guess I’m strange in this). In fact, I walk right through my shoes as well, and have been known to eke out a few more weeks’ of wear by shamelessly duct-taping the pair I’ve got until I can mooch a ride off somebody to a shoe store.

Because of course the whole culture is working against you as a pedestrian. In college you get along well enough, but once you hit “real life,” everybody just assumes you have a car. Sure, that apartment is perfect for you, but you’re going to pass it up because how would you commute when there are no bus lines and it’s a five-mile trip, without sidewalks? Have a dinner at a professor’s house ten miles from town? Better find a car-owning buddy in your class fast. Have a college alumni association event in the next county? Got to skip that one—no other alums in the area to drive you. Want to meet out-of-town friends at the State Fair? Plan on getting up at 5 in the morning to catch the bus to Richmond where you can meet your friends to drive the rest of the way. And coming back, just don’t expect to get home before midnight because that’s how the buses run. Need to go to the hospital in the middle of the night? Better hope you’re not too sick for the half-hour walk.

And then it rains.

People who have cars, particularly if they’ve had them from high school on, don’t often think about these things. People who don’t have cars think about them all the time. But there is some good too, things that might even outweigh sheer cowardice in my continued refusal to join the car-owning coterie. I like walking. You can do all sorts of things while you walk that you can’t properly do while driving. You can listen to music, or say your prayers, or recite poetry (a favorite of mine), or stop mid-stride to take a picture of a squirrel. Do that in a car and you’re likely to get rear-ended—and probably run over the squirrel to boot.

When you walk everywhere, you notice a lot more of the world than when it’s flashing by at 40 miles an hour. You notice when the bush on the corner first buds in the spring, and you notice when the honeysuckle comes out even before you see it, because you can smell it. You learn to identify birds based on their songs, and you figure out when garbage day is for every neighborhood you walk through. You become a walking almanac, noticing the first hints of autumn simply because it feels cooler walking into the shade; when it’s really Virginia-style summertime humid, it makes very little difference whether you’re under trees or directly out in the sunshine. You become a pretty decent weatherman because you need to know whether to walk fast (or run) in order to get home before the thunderstorm.

And then there are the health benefits, not just to you but to the environment around you. If you walk to and from the gym instead of driving, you get an extra 15 minutes’ mild cardio workout. Do that a couple times in a day and you can skip the gym entirely. And I like knowing that, when I go to class or to church, no one is the worse for my travels—there are no added carbon emissions into the air, there’s no extra noise pollution, no heat, no fumes. I like not caring what gas prices are, and I like not having to worry about that wad of bills with the googley eyes that represents “the money I could be saving with Geico.” But most of all, I like knowing how the earth feels under my feet, whether it’s frozen or parched dry. I like knowing the contours of my neighborhood the way some people never even know their own yards, and feeling every rise and fall in the road as I go, like the earth breathing under me.

Someday, in fact someday soon, I will inevitably get a car. You can only mooch rides off your friends for so long, and free bus passes only last as long as you’re a student. But I hope I won’t ever forget what it’s like to be a consummate pedestrian—for good and for ill. In any case, for right now at least, no thanks: I’ll walk.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Blogger Paradigm Shift

Hello to my blog-following friends! Forgive the long silence: I promise I did nothing of interest during that time that hasn’t been better reported on elsewhere.

Since I’m no longer a traveler, it seems appropriate that I make some changes to my former travel-blog. Let’s face it: the only people who find life in grad school noteworthy are the grads who live it. So for the sake of making this blog worth the time it takes to read it (I hope), I intend to start putting up occasional little reflections and essays, sometimes formal, sometimes not. (I discovered recently I like writing essays—not academic stuff but meditations and commentaries like Chesterton and Lewis used to write.) And if something interesting happens, well, I’ll comment away on that too! I hope it offers—if not much meaning—at least some amusement. It is “nearly nonsense,” after all.

So in that spirit, here is my first reflection, on Moving:

Two days ago, after a wonderful summer at home, I moved into my new apartment in Charlottesville for the start of the fall semester. It took two trips in a packed-to-the-gills van from D.C. with my saintly parents; it was over 90 degrees both days, I live on the top floor of a three-story building, and I have a LOT of heavy stuff. Keep in mind my dad did all this heavy lifting with a missing fingernail, and my mom did it while recovering from a long-term injury to her shoulder. Like I said, saintly. But all that schlepping aside, the boxes are unpacked, the dishes are washed, and (134 thumbtacks later) my pictures are on the walls and I am starting to feel settled.

It’s odd what sorts of things make you feel at home. Pictures on the walls help (even if they’re cut-out calendar pages put up with tacks, dormitory-style), but I realized this weekend that what does more for me than anything else is carpet. Maybe it’s because all my childhood homes were carpeted, but I feel more at ease in this place, more apt to run around without my shoes on, than I ever did in my previous two apartments, both of which had hardwood floors. I guess there’s just something about bare feet that says “home.”

For interest’s sake, I’d like to make a few notes on some of the odd design elements in this new place. For one thing, the front door has a peephole that is six feet in the air. What six-foot-tall person even NEEDS to check a peephole before opening the door?!) For another, the outlet in the bathroom shuts off whenever the light is off, forcing me to keep my charging electric toothbrush in my bedroom, of all places. Classy. In addition to that, every outlet is installed sideways except that one in the bathroom, meaning I only have one choice when I need to recharge my camera batteries, which have to be vertical. See previously mentioned problem with this outlet. Three cheers for keeping the bathroom light on for eight hours straight? But hey, I know (and deeply sympathize with) a couple who are currently itinerant because their condo has been uninhabitable for months due to an invasion of mold. So I guess things like giant-height peepholes are nothing to complain about. I’m just commenting on them, because they’re weird.

Oh, but it IS strange moving back to a town after having been away for over a year. It’s a little like trying to have a conversation with an old friend who doesn’t remember you. You walk around recalling shortcuts and favorite haunts and no one knows you from Adam (or Eve). The shortcuts are gone because of construction, and half your old haunts are something completely different from what they used to be: there are new eateries, bars, and fast-food chains in their place. It’s not all bad, of course—I’d go for a Dunkin’ Donuts over Rita’s Water Ice any day, and Bodo’s Bagels is still on the Corner, so the world hasn’t ended—and every now and again I recognize the face of a fellow grad or even a former student (whose names I never remember), but it IS an unsettling sensation. It feels like trying to put on a shoe that fit last year but just doesn’t anymore. Sometimes you’re not sure whether it’s the shoe that’s changed, or you.

I’m pretty sure it’s the shoe; how much could I have changed in a year? After all, I’m not the one who underwent a facelift called the South Lawn Project. I know what rotten shark tastes like and have a newfound appreciation for the cornucopia that is an American grocery store—but that’s about it.