I walked through the city limits
(Someone talked me in to do it)
Attracted by some force within it
(Had to close my eyes to get close to it)
xxxxxxxxxxxx“Interzone” – Joy Division
Whether factually or not, I’d trace the severe, consequent moments throughout my life to stretches of movement. I pace. I walk. When writing my first novel, I’d finish some mornings at four and walk outside in my father’s neighborhood in underwear and lie down on the street at the intersection. Nobody came, I wasn’t worried. I’ve convinced myself somewhere over time that all we do is bound up in all that’s done: i.e., you pore over documents researching projects, say, and feel it’s this that leads to good days of work done. What about the menial tasks? The mailbox walks. The family calls. The television watched. The food prepared and not; eaten, not. We pay attention to apparently massive events of import and neglect the steps it takes from where you sit to the place wherein your bladder can be let. I do this, in turn. I care little while the small moments are happening and even belittle them to my detriment, often feeling I’ve done nothing all day when to recount them would require sincere attention. I think of walking in these terms. I thought of it as necessary toward a particular kind of relief nothing else brought. It wasn’t constant, I didn’t walk great lengths daily but when I made time for it something else seemed to happen.
Walking for me changed when architecture changed, cities or long rural stretches suddenly took on meaning, became signs of something, warped. In Jarett Kobek’s novel of the 9/11 attacks, ATTA, his iteration of Mohammed, Atta, wanders cities hearing voices in their materials. I hadn’t known this prior to reading but Atta was a student of architecture, had written a dissertation in fact regarding the imperialist dominion of metropolitan architecture over the Middle East. The heft of these sentiments is largely unimportant to my purposes here, but I often wonder about the post-9/11 psyche and its relationship to architecture. Like the possibility of burned, sacked, destroyed works of art—either by the hands of their creators or fascists or mere accident—I wonder if anticipation of destruction alters our sense of the landscape in ways it simply couldn’t prior to the explosive power of our present. To be sure, it isn’t only terrorists who alter our cities, our landscapes. I grew up in a town in apparent constant search for redefinition amid advancing norms. Restaurants in husks of old diners, college campuses redone in glass opposed to brick, these are familiar shifts to anyone alive today. Although his final acts warp any logic one might glean from either the real or fictional Atta, this notion of an intensely personal, intimate, physiological relationship to one’s comparably inanimate surroundings would seem a thing not duly mined, considering its likeness to questions of AI, the Singularity, or our soured relationship to ecology.
In Tsai Ming Liang’s brilliant short film, Walker, perhaps the polar opposite to Kobek’s citydweller can be found. What happens: a bald monk walks slowly, almost frustratingly so, through the city. He holds a bag and by film’s end removes—slowly—a burger from the bag, taking slow, meditative bites. It’s my understanding that this sort of movement is occasionally a form of actual meditation. This makes sense to me. Turning inward and simply sitting there is often trying, but doing this while focusing in minute detail on every movement made, taking deliberate steps, asserting the body’s form against the horror of the world, this makes perfect sense.
I’ve always viewed walking as a literary matter, an artful matter, long before discovering figures like Iain Sinclair, or Guy Debord, or Baudelaire and conceptions of the flaneur. Walking has always proven therapeutic, whether doing so aggressively late at night and letting the apparent danger of the world present itself, or doing it mildly one afternoon after being inside for too long, the act of walking has simultaneously transcended a basic corporeal state, and asserted one.
Rogers Park is a neighborhood in north Chicago. Where I lived you’d exit the El and through a smear of shops and bodies have encountered a wonderful nodding of demographics. I lived in an apartment on my own with one room surrounded by large family apartments always hubbubing and boiling these complicated wafts. I never came to know them of minor nods and kept to myself that year from this perpetual tendency I have of eating or not the wrong medicine, worldview, or daily set of acts that led through all their variation to the same gutless solitude, a bitter living spoken aloud to myself and only made to wane through incredible heaps of television and the few far-between obsessions with the arts.
Leaving my apartment after turning right once you’d find entry to a beach. This beach is on Lake Michigan and I typically walked along it late at night. At my entry, a jut of large rocks allowed for a sort of pier whereon you could easily fall into water were you careless. I was often careless and ill-dressed for whatever occasion it was but I never fell in. I’d walk out, say, mildly winded from the trek from studio there, and sit on some rock’s jagged seat to watch the sky and water. This area isn’t exactly dangerous regarding crime but all the same one would do well to focus on matters and turn any potential needs—directions, whatever—inward. For myself these were paranoiac times. I’d come upon a unipolar depression summer previous after meddling with my skull since a youth and being poked at by various abbreviated meds. Then I took a heap of medicine each day and returned to Chicago bright-eyed. Then I threw my medicine into the toilet and sat in the bath without good light and read at pages of Jim Thompson or Céline until dropping the former into the tub to watch it waterlog, and leaving apartment night on night with latter gripped to ward off the world’s moods and chisel numb idiot notes upon my head.
So this beach was particular, dirtied, humming and full of death. I’d wear what clothes were there and sit on wet sand spreading my arms out beside me making bellows.
An aside: on arriving second year in the city of H.H. Holmes I wound up broke downtown without means to ride the L back up to Rogers Park. It being midday and having eaten—I, bodily, have diabetes mellitus and thus would note these things at moments—I decided to walk home. This walk took me eight hours and for the last two I dug in the garbage bins lining the lake for sips at discarded Powerades as my blood sugar had made its plummet.
Endless hubbub has, can be made of the opening to Wim Wenders’s masterpiece, Paris, Texas. I first saw this film when living in Chicago. I watched it and, some point after Harry Dean Stanton’s miserado “Travis” made his long walk through the desert valley, I said to myself “this is my favorite film.” What happens in its opening, as noted: a man in a tattered suit and red baseball cap walks. He’s returning, it seems, as he’s so disheveled, and carries a two gallon jug with remnants of dirty water. Simple, droney guitar emanates, and his walk continues. I know of nothing like it in cinema, not to mention films taking place in America, and I can’t watch it without feeling buried in some abstract sense.
Just as often as walking shaped my days and hours were spent focused on the few feet of ground just next, I’d create arbitrary treks to add small blips of meaning to otherwise empty, useless days. This was at a time when I’d begun work on my second novel. I’d turned 21 and lived alone. I’d read Frederick Exley’s trilogy and Céline’s Journey and thus when I’d come home from school or movies or walks, I’d etch away at staccato bits of narrative I then called Shadows to the Light. I’d wake and have coffee and work, then walk for X amount of time. I’d return with ideas or scribbled notes and work until I couldn’t, then leave and scale the aisles of an all-night grocery not wanting to go home just yet.
Long walks then along the beach and through the park as long successful coffee’d stints of work. Short, staccato blips I’d map out imagined lines from block to block nearby so as to stave off this constant note of failure.
Exley walked, if memory serves, after a hospitalization; he’d sat on his mother’s couch with dog to watch television for months. Eventually, and abruptly, he took to foot and spent his days walking until he couldn’t breathe or take it. I admired this and understood. All my life I’ve tended to saturate my head in often rotten media: literature sure and film but also hours upon hours of television. I’d do this then and came to realize that movement, physical movement, could right the muck. Perhaps it’s never entirely right but it at least put the muck to work in interesting ways. I’d walk say after reading Jim Thompson in the tub or watching police procedurals and edges of paranoia scattered my thinking.
There is, then, at best, a kind of art ingested through covering the city, letting the city cover you. My body would be anxious, slow of step and in my head I’m frantic. In retrospect it becomes simple to toss figures at it. Remember the monk, remember Baudelaire, remember Rebecca Solnit and the foundation here, walking as transmutative, walking as compelling, fundamentally human, Iain Sinclair covering the M5 and allowing himself to become swathed in the narrative where he stepped. I’d aspire to it, and perpetually fail. I remember Molloy and steps taken into the unknown and bodies affected by their environment until all that’s left is a withering tramp, a citizen without shoes sucking on stones and keeping time this way. Once I felt chased through the park. I listened to music. I turned Beethoven loud in my ears and covered ground where nobody would follow. Followed still, I turned and faced the person. I screamed at them and wandered off. I was losing myself. An older man saw me later and spoke with me. He flattered me. He flirted with me, he told me all would be O.K. and the person likely just wanted to speak to me. I imagined a life with that old man. I wanted to hug him, to kiss him and feel his history pass through me. I stood there with him and eventually he did hold me. I do not know how I looked. A confused person, thinned by anxiety and in search of something. I sometimes met older men that way, though typically it never went beyond conversation, always in transit. He was sweet, however. He sort of held me in his words. That night I returned to my apartment and received a strange message. I didn’t know where it came from and it showed a male stood up in his kitchen, a kitchen. I didn’t respond but it didn’t make sense. I was losing it. I’d continue my frantic pacing contacting strangers online and speaking with them on the phone, always older men and women and always touched with some bit of the anxiety of lust. The problem of walking is imagining your lives in every step, what might’ve been. The problem of reflecting is you’re brought back, wherever you’ve been, to feel the heap of potential history wash over you. I walked, then, to put myself at the feet of living and submit to human beings, to open myself and fail to welcome entirely the lonely glints returned in eyes as I went past.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of Postures, GAG, Flamingos and others. His work has appeared in LIT, Berfrois, The Fanzine and elsewhere. He lives and works in Idaho.