walking backwards

Ever since I was about eight years old, my routine has always included frequent walks. Even now, my daily commute involves about 50 minutes of walking as well as a Metro ride. The time that I spend alone on the sidewalks of Washington and Maryland seems continuous with the walks that I started as early as 1975. Personal identity is nothing but a story we tell ourselves; we select a few instances from the countless events of our past and make them definitive of an “I” that is, in reality, less distinctive, consistent, and separate from its context than we like to believe. As I tell myself a story about my self, I can find no deeper continuity than the series of walks I have taken since childhood and the meandering thoughts that have accompanied them.

As I grew up, my family mainly alternated between Syracuse, NY and London. I think I first walked alone frequently in Syracuse, going to school (often with friends but sometimes on my own) or strolling in the neighborhood. And what did I think about as I walked on those steep sidewalks cracked by old roots, past hippy group houses or the Arts-and-Crafts bungalows of faculty families–or between high heaps of dog-stained Syracuse snow? Mostly fantasies of adventure, I think. I also puzzled through questions of history and politics, addressing that silent inner student whom I suspect we all use as our primary audience.

One of our periods London began in June 1975 and ended in August 1976, if my calculations are correct. I turned nine that winter, and we lived in a Regency row house in South Kensington (which would now be as far out of my family’s reach as Buckingham Palace; rents have risen). I was allowed to take excursions on my own to certain approved destinations. For instance, I could walk to South Kensington Station, descend into an old tunnel that connects it to the Natural History Museum, emerge in the Museum, and spend hours looking at musty specimens and obeying a self-imposed rule to read every label. Or I could walk to an Indian gift shop that smelled of incense and stocked objects like fans and candles that I could afford for family birthday presents.

We were back in London frequently; I especially recall the long walks I used to take through Westminster when I was 12 and 13, and the days during graduate school when I would ride the bus from Oxford to London’s West End and then make my way on foot all the way to the Docklands of the east. Once, in Jack-the-Ripper’s old neighborhood–subsequently flattened to build Stalinist public housing and recently gentrified–an ancient Cockney lady with a beard stopped me and said, “Enjoy yer life, son. You’re still young.”

Although nowadays few middle class parents would allow their kids to go far alone in New York City, back in the more dangerous 1970s I used to spend vacation days wandering from my great-aunt’s apartment in Greenwich Village to midtown to meet a parent at a museum or book store.

In the spring of 1984, when I was finishing high school, my family spent the semester in Florence and I enrolled in the Syracuse University Program there. Since the city is magnificent–and since I had a limited social life as the only high-school student in a program for college juniors–I used to walk constantly. I got to know the narrow stone streets intimately. My favorite walk wound from our neighborhood north of Santa Croce across the Arno and then up the steep hill to San Minato al Monte, from which there is a sweeping view. For my courses, I was reading and thinking about Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Erwin Panofsky, and Jan Huizinga; they all remain extremely interesting to me today.

Later, as a young adult in Washington, I used to walk occasionally across the Potomac and up into Arlington Cemetery. Although the souls of Washington and Florence are vastly different, there is a strange similarity in their basic layouts: the Capitol stands in for the Duomo, the Washington Monument for the Bargello, and the Old Post Office for the Palazzo Vecchio. Certainly, my unconscious mind has confused them; I frequently dream that I am walking across Florence and find myself in Arlington, or vice-versa.

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