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I walk home from work whenever I can. I work in midtown and live downtown and the walk is about 60 blocks. I am on my walk this evening—it’s sometime between six and eight o’clock—apex rush hour has ended, the commuter clump has decomposed, but not to such an extent that the streets are depopulated. It’s normal pressure. It’s between seasons now – winter and spring—your fingers don’t hurt, but the air chills your bones and crumples your upper spine and shoulders until you get the blood flowing, whereupon that part of you relaxes and the air pleasantly braces your face skin, reminding you that you are alive, healthy, ambulatory in the outside world, employing your legs as they were designed to be employed ever since man had to traverse great distances to find his food. I’m on Lexington avenue, in the endless no-man’s-land that links midtown with downtown. I’m on the East Side of Lexington. The sidewalks are narrow here.
I notice a youngish man in a grey suit sharing the sidewalk with me. He’s white, taller than me. He’s considerably more substantial than I am, though not overweight. It would be really hard for me to win against him in a fight if I didn’t have anything sharp. He has facial hair. I can tell from the back of him that he’s not a particularly elegant individual. There are earpods in his ears—they’re wired, and the wire leads to his pocket. He is walking aggressively. It might appear to an observer that I too am walking aggressively. That’s not intended—it’s just because I always maintain a brisk pace on my walks—I’m going a far distance, and, in addition to a form of meditation, I consider my walks a form of exercise.
I’ve got a bead on this man in the grey suit, and I can tell that this thing is going to happen: I will pass him, then he will pass me, then I pass him again, and it will go on like that. Both of us will happen to be going in the same direction. This kind of mobile coincidence will persist block after block until it becomes unpleasant. It will start to seem like one of us is chasing the other—we will build up an irksome awareness of one another.
I walk quickly and pass the grey suit man, my annoying dress shoes clip clop on the concrete like a horse’s shoed hooves. But then I reach a crosswalk where the light is against me. Me, and the other pedestrians who have been held up at the crosswalk with me, each find our place, mindful of personal space, and then linger, with our devices and our thoughts. Sure enough, I spot grey suit among them.
I miss the light at the next crosswalk, and he is there again, waiting. Then we’re off—I put my head down and walk. I’ve got other things to worry about than a stranger in a grey suit—I’m a real person, I have places to get to. Then I see him again; he gets ahead of me. I moderate my pace to keep a distance behind him. However, I can’t fully separate from him without weirdly slowing down. So I continue this way, in lockstep behind him for two full blocks. Finally, I can’t stand it any longer and I break through, surging past him, like in a Nascar race where a tailgating vehicle uses that vacuum. I think his eyes are on the back of me—I consider how my back must seem to him—but I keep going.
This is done with. The man in the grey suit turned off and went somewhere to his destination I suppose. But at another crosswalk he is there again, that infernal young man in his grey suit. He crosses ahead of me, boldly, not waiting for all the cars to proceed. Does he think, like I do, that this situation is absurd—that we are two strangers who cannot walk in peace, being ourselves, upright, without thinking of each other? Eventually I leave him behind, definitively. But when should I stop thinking of the stranger?