“If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” –Hippocrates (allegedly)
Not too long ago I had one of those Great Awakening moments that remind us how unnecessarily complicated we make our lives.
It happened on Daddy’s Night Out, when I go discover the wonders of London alone, usually in and out of various pubs and bars. On this night I was headed out to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, across the Thames, about five miles away – long and winding city miles. I do this regularly, go see live jazz shows in Soho. Getting there requires a couple of subway rides, with a switch at Waterloo Station before barreling into one of the busiest parts of town.
I headed to the first tube station, about a five-minute walk from our home in Bermondsey. When I got there, people were pouring out of the station and into the street. This was unusual. Our station is one of the least busy you’ll find because it has no connections to any other trains or subway lines, so about 99% of riders pass right on through. It was around 7:30 p.m., at the tail end of the evening commute. Even during the rush hour, you never see this many people coming out of Bermondsey Station at the same time.
It turns out that the train service on this line had been shut down for one reason or another. Probably something engineering related. People had to get off at Bermondsey station because service ended there.
So, I couldn’t take the subway to the jazz show, and people were cramming into the buses, so that was out, too. Taking an Uber would have meant getting snarled in traffic from all the cars suddenly on the road because of suspended tube service.
Theoretically, I could have walked the 5-odd miles, but by the time I got to the show I’d only see about one set, if that. So…
No trip to Soho, no jazz show.
Ordinarily, I might have been pissed off about this, and cursed the fates that conspire against us on this cruel, coldhearted coil (grrrrr!). I had booked and paid for the ticket, and one of the things I like most in the world is watching live jazz performed by skilled musicians.
But on this particular night, what I mostly felt was relief. I had an excuse not to go. And the fact is, I didn’t really want to go. I wanted to do anything else in the world but pack myself into a cramped subway, ride it a few stops to Waterloo Station, switch at Waterloo Station to crawl into another cramped subway, take that one a few stops to Leicester Square Station, walk out into crowded Leicester Square and then to crowded Soho, go to a crowded jazz club, sit there trying to listen to music while loud people yakked over the musicians, then repeat the whole experience in reverse.
All I really wanted to do was kick around our neck of the woods, using my own feet for transportation. I wanted to smell the air and hear the street and see the old buildings. I didn’t want to be beholden to a schedule of trains, showtimes and more trains, or penned in by a sea of humanity.
I just wanted to walk around.
And now I could, all because the subway service shut down. I could walk and relax, go where I wanted, when I wanted, at my own pace and on my own schedule, with lots of air and space around me, using nothing but my feet. If the jazz club had been just a little closer, I might have walked there.
On my own feet.
Feet are a miracle of biological engineering. Each foot is made up of 26 bones, 30 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, all of which work together to provide support, balance and mobility*. All in a single foot!
They are the single greatest mode of transportation the world has ever known. Think about what they have accomplished.
Feet have been moving humans around the globe for hundreds of thousands of years, from one far corner of the planet to the other. Nomadic Africans used their feet to wander into the upper reaches of present-day Europe and then Asia. From there, feet carried Asians into North America and then South America, back when Asia and North America were connected – tens of thousands of miles, over all kinds of terrain, in all kinds of weather.
All these thousands of years later, walking is still the best way to get around.
As noted before on this blog, I’m a bicycle enthusiast, and love cycling around the city. I do it pretty much every day, even in cool, damp, rainy London. I hope to do it well into my senior years, regularly. It’s one of my favorite things in the world, hopping on a bike and pedaling.
I don’t drive here in London, but I do enjoy driving – until I hit the first traffic jam. Mostly I just like the convenience of hopping in a car and going somewhere on my own schedule. I spent a big chunk of my younger years motoring long distances across great, empty swaths of American land, with the music turned up loud and the windows rolled down.
Boats? Love ‘em. Who can’t love a boat?
I am a supporter and regular user of mass transit – trains, buses, subways. It’s a much more sustainable way to move large numbers of people around than cars and trucks, but I don’t necessarily love it.
Flying? Yes, we have to do it. But Jesus, what a mind-melting, soul-killing, cosmically fucked-up experience it has become. My idea of Hell is spending the rest of eternity in an airport, rushing to get through security and customs before they close the departure gate, all for the privilege of hurtling through the air in a cramped tin can with tiny bathrooms.
Walking is the opposite experience. It is pure and free, uncomplicated, relaxing, Zen-like. You don’t need a ticket. You don’t need ID. You don’t need to find a bike rack or parking spot or dock. You see things you don’t see in any other means of transport. You hear things you otherwise wouldn’t hear.
I walk past buildings that date back 150 years here in London, and wonder about all the lives that have moved in and out of them. Who lived there, and when? What did they eat for dinner? How did they entertain themselves? What did they see when they gazed out the window? What wonders did they experience as the world hurtled itself into the future?
A century ago, somebody walked down these same streets, past these same buildings, in similar weather, at the same time of night. They are long gone now, just flashes of memory. But they were here. One day I’ll be a flash of memory, and someone not even born yet will walk down these streets 100 years from now, wondering what I wondered a century ago.
When we lived in New York City, I would often walk from my office in midtown Manhattan all the way down to Battery Park City on the southern tip of the island to meet my wife for after-work drinks, maybe 5 miles or so. It might have taken an hour or more by foot. I could have hopped the subway and gotten there in less than 20 minutes.
But I enjoyed walking, the freedom and improvisation of it. Manhattan is a huge, crowded island of about 1.6 million people packed into 59 square kilometers, one of the most densely populated places in the world, with towering skyscrapers and clogged city streets.
But every now and then you might find yourself in pockets of space and quiet – as long as you walk, and know where to go. This mainly happens when you venture far enough south and west, and find yourself in relatively quiet warehouse districts, away from the pulse of Midtown but not as far south as Wall Street. These treks gave me needed relief from the crowds and noise, a chance to center my thoughts and enjoy the alone time.
Europe is great for walking because its cities and towns were originally designed for people who got around on foot. You’d need a calculator to keep up with all the beautiful cities in this part of the world. The dozen or so we’ve visited are all excellent for walking. That’s what I mainly want to do when we visit other cities in Europe: walk around, look at the cityscapes and architecture, stroll through the plazas and past the cafes, soak it all in, commit it to memory.
Walking provides an uncomplicated break from a complicated world. I’m going to stop looking for excuses to do it, like hoping for tube service to shut down so it will give me an excuse to just walk around.
I’m getting older. Life is growing shorter. Time for a walk.
*Stolen verbatim from the Arthritis Foundation website.
Note: The artwork accompanying this blog is R. Crumb’s famous “Keep on Truckin’” cartoon. He’s another American expat living on this side of the world. I bet he walks a lot, too.