I don’t have a gym membership anymore, but I like the feeling and effects of exercise. So I use parks, stairways, household objects, and scaffolds. When I use scaffolds, I like to walk around from one spot to another, so I can rest my upper body for the next set while not feeling idle or getting bored.
Tonight I went out for a walk after dark, venturing out a little over a mile and walking back. I get a little self conscious when people are walking by as I exercise, so if they’re very close I wait for them to pass before starting.
This time, I was squaring up to a crossbar when I heard two women approaching. They were white, around my age, with light and long hair, narrow figures around 5’8″ in height. I was leaning with both arms stretched out on the bar as they walked by me. We saw each other, but said nothing, and they kept on walking.
After I finished my set, I kept walking up the street, and saw them look back while talking to each other. I instinctively looked back over my shoulder, although I knew they were looking at me. There was a black man walking behind me, probably about five years older than me, around my height or a little shorter but more solidly built, wearing an embossed leather jacket and a wool hat. He was about as far away from me as I was from them, or maybe a little closer.
The girls (I think of them as “girls” — for a while, for me, “women” and “men” will still be people older than me) looked a little uncomfortable, and I immediately felt shame at what I thought was their suspicion, which is not always how I react. I wanted both to defy their judgment and to allay their fear, and so I decided to cross over to the other side of the street. But as I started crossing it occurred to me that the man behind me might think I was crossing to avoid him, since I had turned to look at him when they had turned to look at me.
I watched him as I crossed, but he didn’t show any outward sign of being upset. When I got to the other side of the street and resumed my pace, I saw the two girls crossing to the same side of the street I was on. I don’t know if they were going to that side of the street because they needed to go there, because they were scared of me and had not checked again, or because they were scared of the other man. The last possibility was the most tempting to me, because if they feared a black man because of some racist reason, it would lessen the legitimacy of their previous judgment of me.
I immediately crossed the street again, to the same side I had started on. Because I had taken time to cross twice, I was now walking behind the man, who seemed to take no notice.
Then I stopped watching everyone, and went on to the next scaffold.
I like walking around, especially at night, and I feel strangely when people fear me. Sometimes I like the deference, but dislike the distance. When I pass another person who is feared and we do not fear each other, I like the brotherhood in that. When I fear another person, I like to see other people validate my feeling with the same distance and caution. When I see people fear other people I do not fear, I am offended by their fear, which I fear abstractly, as part of a cleansing instinct, a threat through authority.
There’s a sort of depth of life I feel in the unspoken language of street passings. Streets mostly empty, late at night, bring back a kind of state of mind that enlivens me.
I remember walking back from nights out in D.C., in quiet residential neighborhoods with big trees and bright streetlights. It was a part of town where no tourists came, no college kids or post-college transplants, and the adults were asleep. It was just for us.
Or walking down alone through Morningside Park in college, sometimes to play basketball poorly, sometimes just to clear my mind. I was proud because other kids didn’t think it was safe.
When I first moved to Clinton Hill after I graduated, I walked around the neighborhood in expanding spirals, to get a sense of it, got a late-night burger at the Country House Diner, came back to an empty apartment, because I was crashing there for a couple days before I was unpacked, before I’d even bought a mattress, a few days before our lease officially began.
When I worked as an EMT, I would walk up through City Line, East New York, Brooklyn sometimes in the snow, in my work boots and uniform, to catch the late night train at Euclid Avenue. People would defer to my uniform. When I got on the train, it would be a C train just starting up, and I would get the forward-facing seats and stretch my legs out over the empty seats in front of me
I went on vacation to Mozambique, and on the streets of Maputo guards with assault rifles on their back would try to shake us down for money. We would walk fast to avoid them, and one time one of them grabbed me by the wrist. I turned around, looked him in the eye, and broke my hand free. I was in Maputo for three nights, I think, and it still is a place I remember, because its streets felt different than any others, but looked like enough places where there were other streets that other streets would remind me of them.
I don’t know the name for this feeling. I don’t even know what the word for the particular kind of feeling is, the mindset, the way of being, the language, the type of engagement. It’s a home in my mind, or a being I can be. It’s a certain type of simplicity.
But it is something.
When I walk at night, I feel a different way than the other people are walking, but I feel that there is a kind of communication, I feel like it makes sense, and within certain bounds the back and forth can be understood. But what I feel was said is a projection or what was understood, the whole thing is rooted in my own feeling, takes place in my own world.
This is part of what a language is.
I’m going to go for a walk.