As I have lost eyesight over the past thirty years, walking has been the simplest and most dependable solution to the functional limitations of my disability. When I stopped driving cars at age eighteen, walking was the mode of transportation most accessible to me. This sounds reasonable enough – a problem to be solved , a solution — but I will confess that my experience of walking also has its darker, less rational dimensions. This is not pretty.
Much of the time I walk in a world organized for the convenience and efficiency of drivers, not pedestrians. It feels like a world obsessed with wheels, noise, and speed. I admit it, I don’t see people anymore, only their machines. Sometimes when I listen and wait to cross the street in front of my house, I imagine ridiculous hierarchies that could rule such a world: the bigger the wheels, the louder the engine, the faster you go to get from here to there, the more power you have, the more social grace and status, the more rights of way. SUV’s have more right to the road than compact cars. Compact cars outrank riding lawn mowers, which are louder if not faster than bicycles. But even bicycles lord it over a guy standing on his own two feet, not to mention a poor guy waiting with a white cane.
I know these are not rational sentiments. I sound like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. “I am a sick man,” he said. “I am a spiteful man.” I can feel just as confused and alienated, standing on the curb. I listen and judge the speed of oncoming cars by the noise of engines and wheels. I get angry when they speed. I get angrier when they dawdle along. The noisiest of them, motorcycles and diesel dump trucks, send me into a rage. But I suspect the one that will someday turn me into road kill will be silent, a new-fangled hybrid.
There must be a name for this kind of sickness. I call it foot rage. I began to get a grip on it when I realized one day that the drivers of those SUV’s and riding lawn mowers entertained the same sick thoughts. They call it road rage. The symptoms are much the same – the anger, the impatience, the grandiosity, the finger flipping, the foul swearing. Some of them even keep guns in their cars to anticipate the road rage of others. A white cane feels like a pretty slim stick by comparison.
Before you put me in a straightjacket, though, let me say that there is another side to the story. If foot rage were more than a fleeting, irrational distraction, I would never get across the street. Mundane it may be, but crossing the street has become my moment of agency, the existential moment when I feel most alive, when I mine every available scrap of sensation and experience to make a decision. Do I cross? Do I wait? Walking is the sum of such moments. It is how I know and map my place in the world.
The word pedestrian, with its connotations of banality and routine, does not begin to express the satisfactions I experience in this kind of walking. The French have better words for it. The verb is
flanare flâner, which loosely means to stroll or to wander aimlessly. One who walks this way is a flaneur. In Paris, such walking evolved into an art form. Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin were two of its great practitioners. In their imaginations, an aimless stroll through the streets of Paris became social transformation, the construction of new and subjective realities out of the pedestrian debris of cultural excess and alienation. Whew! Fortunately, you do not have to be a postmodern theorist to follow the flaneur’s art. It can be as simple as strolling down Rue Mouffetard with a baguette under your arm.
[This was the prelude to a talk I gave in 2006 at the Multiple Perspectives on Access, Inclusion, and Disability Conference at The Ohio State University. The talk became the genesis of this blog.]