In coming months, I’m going to be participating in a few events in various cities, talking about worker cooperatives, based in large part on my experience working in them. I also happen to be in Baltimore at the moment, staying with a former co-conspirator in such projects, hopefully writing on the subject a bit together. And yet far more rich and interesting for me (perhaps simply because I’ve discussed it less) is this: For just over ten years I was a dogwalker; more specifically, I walked for a living. Just in verbalizing that, or typing the words, I feel both absurd and of some limited, elite quantity of my species (in the case of the latter, it amounts to probably the only discipline in which I could even daydream of such status). There certainly aren’t many people who walk professionally. But I find myself coming back to the fact that multiple aspects of that designation make for arguably more interesting conversation than the topic of self-management.
During my brief stint as an undergrad, I remember reading Ivan Illich’s piece Energy and Equity, which effectively turns on the proposal that all but emergency transportation be limited to 15mph, and explores to some extent how the speed of movement shapes our psyche, relationship with our surroundings, our sense of space and scale, and so on. Anyone whose primary mode of transportation is a bike is familiar with a limited version of such recalibration, at least intuitively, and David Byrne gets into it a bit in his short book, Bicycle Diaries. Cities especially come to feel different at slower speeds, and the arteries that shape their activity and lend them narrative change dramatically. In and of itself, the fact that a city can be fluid in such ways marks a significant departure from popular, conventional depictions — raising real questions about the functions of such conceptions; a matter to which Guy Debord applied a rather practical interrogation, noting “cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”
Admittedly, due to other writing I’ve been doing, I’m a bit dialed in on the manner in which a given politics becomes embodied in physical or material practice. Usually, that overlap itself is less of an event than our simply noticing it. And just as often, the politics of it are quite subtle. Many of us, at varying volumes, lament or decry our collective avarice and impulses toward continual consumption, but few of us slow down enough to inhabit an appreciation of what’s already around us. I don’t mean to suggest some quasi-spiritual nonsense; I’m referring to something quite tangible. What actually fascinates me most about our relationship with walking is how a somewhat general disinclination toward doing it at any length coexists with it being a rather deeply human activity; one that simultaneously taps into our most primal motions, and situates us in a more rich, real-time encounter with our surroundings. Living in north Brooklyn for two years, even as a cyclist, I had routine occasion to walk the Manhattan or Williamsburg Bridge, given that the two apartments I called home sat within blocks of one or the other. The damp, morning aftermath of an overnight Chinatown Bus ride from DC, the homeward commute from the Lower East Side after closing up at Bluestockings, or simply opting for the cheap romance of enjoying morning coffee while making my way into the city (as opposed to before or after). New York is a city in which such a stretch yields entire novels, to say nothing of the histories and artistic residue that unfold from one neighborhood to the next. But short of putting one foot in front of the other, and communing with those things so directly, it all dissolves into visual cues and navigation.
It’s no less true of other places. The details taken in at such pace and proximity can appeal to and engage the same eager and accepting curiosity we bring to the contours and features of a new lover. That sort of familiarity is priceless, especially upon repeated visit, if only for its reflexive value. The places where our flaws, blemishes, and messiness do not threaten connection, intimacy, and joy needn’t inhere some limited quantity. They can spill out around us, as far as we allow. And that can be a profound act of reclamation.