Advice for the Small-Towner Who’s Just Moved to the City.

When the sun breaks through the fog for the first time in three days, you will know it is time for a walk.  Maybe you’ll feel it tingling in your calves, or as a spark of intention in the brain. Or maybe you’ll feel it as a tugging echo in your heart, the yearning ghosts of love and wanderlust leftover from that famous summer in ’67, coaxing you out into the sun-drenched day.  Perhaps you’ll look out your window at the golden-dappled street and be suddenly reminded of Hank Thoreau, who in Walking wrote “we should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return…”

Whatever it is that compels you, listen.  Go.

Bring what you will: a purse, a wallet, your keys, or a cell phone (if you must), but realize that you will not be needing any of them. Those forgotten ghosts of wanderlust, after all, require few utensils.  Maybe you’ll think again of Thoreau’s Walking, that “if you have paid your debts and made your will, and settled your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk,” and you won’t bring anything at all.  But take your things with you if they give you comfort.  Thoreau, after all, had a lot fewer affairs to attend to on that pond in Walden.  And the hippies will understand.  They all carry cell-phones nowadays anyway.  In any case, as you leave your house, (or more likely, your apartment) try and disregard your notion of destination.  Where you are headed is not a place that can be arrived at by placing heel-to-toe.

And do not bring a jacket.  There should be enough sun, if you have chosen the day correctly, so that, for the most part, you will not need it.  You will need sunglasses, though.  Even if it weren’t a bright day, you would still need them.

You might be tempted to start your walking in the Haight—it would seem a logical choice.  All that history, all the colorful characters, surely you will find whatever it is you are looking for there.  Resist this impulse.  You will find nothing but ghosts and clichés there.  You might also be tempted to head towards the Mission, or the Castro, if you are so inclined, but again, these places just won’t do for this type of walk.  Too easy; too obvious.  Where you need to be is in the forgotten heart of the City.  Start at Market Street, walking up past Van Ness.

Feel the proximity of strangers around you, and let your arms ripple with gooseflesh if they come too close. See how the light glints off the gilded dome of City Hall, casting opulent sparks against your eye. Study the ripples of traffic that wash through the intersections, and breathe in the city odors: the car exhaust and sticky urine and rotting cigarette butts.  Count the Starbucks that you see.  Count the trees.  Keep walking.

Your pace should be brisk, your strides as long as your legs will allow them.  This is no country stroll, no saunter. Weave your way through the crowds.  Zig zag, dodge, pass on the right.

See if you feel frustrated by the dawdling packs of tourists with their maps and flashbulbs, if you stutter your steps behind them, wait for an opening, and then go.  Notice the way the crowd parts for the two-way foot traffic.  Notice who makes way for whom, and who holds their courses.  But don’t think about it too much.  Resist the impulse to generalize.

Maybe you feel strange, rushing so heedlessly through these packs of your fellow humans.  Or maybe it feels natural and correct.  Is there a tinge of guilt in your indifference, or that faint echo of love tugging again at your heart?   Ask yourself as you walk what Thoreau would say if he were with you.  Or those hippies from back in ’67.

Imagine they say: It’s the death of meaning, and the execution of interpretation. That’s what’s different now, that’s what’s changed.

Keep your pace steady as the crowds thin, heading up Market, just past 10th, where there seems to be more garbage now, more smells, and more shifty strangers, huddled on cardboard palates or leaning idly against streetlamps.  And maybe you notice that even the trees here are struggling, shaded on all sides by the chasm of the rising city.  Check the sketchy-eyed derelicts and feel nervous if you will, afraid if you must, but don’t speed up your walking.  Just maintain the quick, even pace of a person with a place to be.  And remember, there is no eye contact permitted, with anyone, at anytime.  That’s why you need the sunglasses.

Make up the worst possible story you can about the next bum you see, how he killed his family with a power drill and now begs for change to buy brandy for the tempting of young schoolgirls back to his dingy lair.  This is just an example.  Go ahead and slap your preconceptions on him for a moment.  Really try and let the horrors spill forth.  Then try a tale that’s the polar opposite: a hard-on-his-luck family man, maybe stricken with cancer, or with a kid so stricken, his house repossessed by hospital bills, forced into this humiliation of scraggly blankets and an empty coffee cup.  Realize that the truth is locked away behind those glazed eyes, behind that matted scraggle of beard.  Think about asking him if he’s settled his affairs and is ready for a walk.  Ask him if you must, but remind yourself about the death of meaning, the execution of interpretation.

And keep counting the Starbucks.

Hustle past the porno theatres and the head shops.  Perhaps you feel conspicuous here, because your clothes or the color of your skin contrasts with those around you.  Let yourself feel conspicuous.  Let it roll over you.  Feel the eyes burning holes through your clothes, and then get over yourself.  Nobody gives a fuck.  Remember the bums you just passed, see if you can find that echo of love in your heart when you look back at them.

Notice now that the crowds are thickening again with tourists and business people, well-dressed folks, and that the store facades are becoming friendlier, emblazoned with familiar brand names.  Pay attention to how this change makes you feel.  Relieved?  Or more conspicuous?

Watch the shoppers with their arms akimbo, elbows hooked with laden sacks, chatting to each other or to the electronics in their ears.  Eavesdrop on their conversations while you wait for the light to change.

This should be the only time you stop moving, to wait at a corner.  Watch the crossing signals with their white men and red hands.  Pay attention to the numbers counting down on the signal perpendicular to you: they will tell you when it’s time to move.  Jaywalk with the packs at first, until you get the hang of it.

You’ll have to start weaving through these crowds of shoppers and tourists again to continue up Market Street.  Make up some more stories about them if you must, and then reverse your preconceptions.  The tourists are locals, and the locals are tourists.  The blonde businesswoman in the brown power-suit has a crack habit and a fecal fetish.  The low-pants kids blasting Hip-Hop are Christian missionaries from Ghana, bringing the word to the street.  Whatever it takes for your perceptions to be skewed.

Maybe by now you’re noticing how if you walk up close behind a lone woman you can sometimes feel the hairs on the back of her neck prickle.  Stutter your steps, pass on the right.  Keep counting Starbucks.  Keep counting trees.

As you continue up Market, you should soon notice a break in the buildings, a flourish of grass down the end of a wide walkway, just after the only café that wasn’t a Starbucks. Turn right.  Notice the metal benches in groups of three as you pass through the walkway of fresh concrete and shiny marble.  Maybe you notice two strangers sitting down on one of the rows, the middle bench empty between them.  Maybe they are all full, or all empty.  Notice the metal elbows bolted over the edges of the planer boxes and retaining walls to keep the skateboarders at bay.

Think if you must about the distance between things, and then ask yourself about the death of meaning, about the execution of interpretation.

On your left there should be a brick wall coming into view from behind the gray high-rises that cast the walkway in shadow.  At first the wall may appear to be part of St. Patrick’s, the brick church sitting at the end of the walkway, but as you get closer, you will see that the section is not connected at all, rather it is just a lone segment retained by rusting pipe buttresses, the fourth wall of the world’s stage removed and placed here for storage.  Ask yourself if you think love can still exist in a world where the fourth wall has been removed, where meaning is dead, where interpretation has been executed.

If you continue down to the end of the walkway you will reach Mission Street, with the Yerba Buena gardens directly across from you.  This is the grass that tempted you down that breezeway in the first place, but you will not take time to linger here.  Steal a few glances at those lazing in the sun. Try and forget about your categories: bums, lovers, students, hipsters, hustlers, tourists.  For a moment just let them all be exactly what they are: people, lying on the grass, in the sun.

Now turn left and keep walking, up Mission Street, past the sliced cylinder of glass rising from the MOMA.  Maybe the sun shines a little brighter off the building’s façade.  Maybe it’s obscured in shadow.  Maybe you start to notice that the cross streets are approaching zero, and start to feel as if a countdown is waning. Let your curiosity get the best of you, go ahead and wonder what street will come after First.  Maybe you hope that it’s Zero, and maybe you feel disappointed when it is revealed to be Fremont.

Or maybe not.

Keep weaving your way down the street, briskly still. Follow the sidewalk as it curves into a crescent to dip into the Trans-Bay Transit Terminal. Go ahead and put on a show of meaning to do exactly what you just did, taking the long way around like that.  Or you can pretend to be a new person, just off a bus or train or ferry, as you merge again with the crowd you left at the beginning of the sidewalk’s arc, those who carried on directly across the mouth of the concrete inlet.

How does it feel to be new like this?  Liberating?  Or terrifying?

By now you might be feeling the urge to slow your pace and crane your neck upwards, to take in the towers of the financial district.  Resist this impulse.  Glance up if you must, but do not slow your pace.  Stutter your steps, pass on the right.

Remain nonplussed.

Turn left when you reach the gold boat propeller that guards an alcove of bank ATMs.  Venture deeper into the financial district, but remember about not looking up.  The crowds might be thinning a bit, or maybe it is lunchtime and they are chaotic.  Pay attention to how you feel.  Do you feel conspicuous here?  Overwhelmed?  Do your clothes or the color of your skin contrast with that of those around you?  Let these feelings wash over you, whatever they are.  Perhaps they are familiar feelings.  Perhaps foreign.  Perhaps the echo of love tugging at your heart is fading like the wisps of fog around you, burnt away by the green heat of money and Starbucks signs.

By now the wind has probably picked up, tunneled down through this canyon of industry, peppering your arms again with gooseflesh.  Maybe you’re wishing you had your jacket.  Go ahead and wish.  Keep counting trees, and keep counting Starbucks.  You can also go ahead and look people in the eyes here.  There is no danger of them returning your gaze, no threat of eye contact.  Notice how everyone is wearing sunglasses.

Look right as you cross Market and see the Ferry Building, obscuring a view of the ocean.  You might want to linger and sigh at this sight, but keep walking.  The sidewalks get narrow here, crowded, but the sun has returned. Dodge the pedestrians removing their jackets, stopping to tie the arms around their necks or waists, dodge the other ones untying their jackets from their necks or waists, slipping arms in awkwardly.

Maybe your legs are starting to quiver in spots, maybe your knees are creaking a bit.  Maybe the buildings are starting to blur together in a wash of scaffolding and colorful signage.  Maybe you’re starting to understand this whole “death of meaning” thing.  Find someone who walks as briskly as you do and follow a few yards behind them for a while.  Notice how they move, navigating their way through the short city blocks, crossing at whichever light is permissive, swapping sides to avoid the orange construction zones.

Wander your way past California Street, past Montgomery, up to where tourists snap photos of the concrete lions guarding the red gate into Chinatown.  Maybe you have walked in Chinatown already, maybe not.  Go ahead and stop to look up the hill at the shops and paper lanterns, and then turn left and head back down the hill.  Save Chinatown for your next walk.  There are different rules and different expectations across that red gate.  Walking there is an advanced technique.

Take your time making your way back to Market.  Avoid the big hills.  Maybe you find it ironic that Bush is a slighter grade than California.  Maybe you don’t.  Maybe you think about the execution of interpretation and laugh.

Try to find the empty streets, or the ones with just a few idle standers.  Try to find whatever scares you.  But remember: it’s daytime.  Don’t insult the nighttime by lavishing an inordinate amount of fear upon the day.

Stay on the other side of the Market as you head back to Van Ness.  Notice what feels different, and what feels the same.  Maybe you walk right up behind a lone woman, just to watch the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. Maybe you walk in a straight line now, letting those who approach weave and stutter to make their way around you.  Maybe you take a moment to stare at the beggar whose eyes are opaque with cataracts, pull off your sunglasses and allow your gaze to pass through the line of his blindness, feel the echo of love from that lost, mythic summer resonating through your core.  Maybe you notice the grungy man with a full coffee cup, his hands shaking and spilling the hot coffee all over his clothes, and wonder: DT’s? or just a way to let people know his cup is full, so they don’t spoil his drink with their loose change?  Wonder all you want.  Wonder what was meant by the death of meaning, the execution of interpretation.

Think about the stores with the strange names and the stores with the familiar names, and the people, strange and familiar too.

You most likely counted more trees than Starbuck’s, but go ahead and count the approaching Starbuck’s again, even though it was the first one you counted as the walk began, because surely you missed one at some point along the way.

Copyright © 2008, Kevin Hobson


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