Sunday, January 30, 2011

The breakaway dash isn’t just for football

My beloved, Elena, loves to watch women’s gymnastics during the Summer Olympics. It’s her sport, after all. But not the part with the running, flipping and somersaulting. Naw, her favorite part comes at the end of the “floor exercise,” when the gymnast lands upright, arms spread skyward, in a dramatic ta-daaaa. She does that part very well.

I enjoy football in the same way. Only I’ve never had the build, the patience or the grasp of the rules actually to play the game. No, my favorite part comes after the quarterback throws to someone who, occasionally, breaks free from everyone chasing him and runs elatedly for a touchdown. That’s me all over. No, not on the football field—there, I’d be under the beefy mass, losing a dimension. It’s me at big store and malls. Stadiums. City streets. In short, wherever other people are in numbers.

Though few seem to share my viewpoint, for me it’s not much different from driving. Take your average highway at rush hour. Nobody is getting anywhere quickly, but everybody knows it. All drivers have, in other words, some notion of when they think they deserve to reach their destinations. Plus absolute knowledge of who needs to get over already.

Once they leave their car, most people leave such crisp awareness of their surroundings behind. Not me. You won’t, of course, see me walking several steps ahead of friends or family, making them run to keep up with me. (They, um, wouldn’t.) And on a completely empty street, I’ll actually take my time in tranquil contemplation. But once you sprinkle a few people in my way? First off, I’ll pay anything, anything, to get that sprinkler from you. Second, the part of my brain that controls locomotion will floor whatever passes for a pedal.

Those walking ahead of me might be very nice people. They’d probably give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if I suddenly passed out.

They’d better step aside if they know what’s good for them.

It’s not that this sort of thing is never helpful. In the supermarket, I’ll often go to get things at the opposite corner of the store to save time. The way Elena tells it, she’ll ask me to get something, turn away from the cart for an instant and, when she looks back at the cart, I’m there. “Didn’t you…?” she might once have started asking. But after 25 years of marriage, she knows I did. And she still talks about when we made the mistake of visiting the Museum of Natural History the day after Thanksgiving—when parents from apparently all over the world, even other planets and galaxies, bring their kids. Late in the day, I realized I had only a few minutes to get the car, four blocks away, before the meter ran out. With the kids so young, we’d never make it unless I went alone. From my wife’s perspective, she left the gift shop when I did and took the kids out to the door to wait for me. I was already out front, idling the car.

My problem is that, as if we were on the road, I cannot fathom the possibility that people don’t know who is coming up behind them (isn’t everyone from the projects?) and how quickly. In the mall, I’m the unfortunate one who knows precisely which store he’s headed to—and what he wants to buy. The others? They mosey. Of course, it’s their right to walk at whatever speed suits them, to spread their party six abreast if they want and to stop at whatever shop windows they feel like. Just don’t expect me not to take the long way around, say, a fountain to get around you.

In the store, I’ll whoosh down the wrong aisle to go around to the other end of the right one. On the street, I’ll pass a city bus or cab—on the street side—to go around a congested stretch of sidewalk. And if I smell the cigarettes of people even a half-block ahead, I’ll quicken the pace even more. Last I checked, it’s still their right. But they won’t even see me till I’m upwind, exercising mine.

I suspect this particular piece of madness owes to both nature and nurture. My dad was always a brisk walker and, in his '70s, took up competitive racewalking—as fast as walking gets before it's a jog. And two blocks east of my building was the human beehive known better as the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, New York. We often passed through this intersection, at which more than a dozen bus lines originated—not counting the cabs. Myriad stores and restaurants lined the streets in all four directions, and each corner of the intersection had a 7-line subway staircase that further impeded foot traffic. As a teenager, I avoided the intersection altogether when I could. In a pinch, I’d run down the subway stairs and cross the street underground.

In her wisdom, Elena has told me that I give people more credit than I should for being alert. However deliberate I might think people are as they walk more slowly through a foot-traffic bottleneck, they really didn’t notice me coming—and would probably make room if they knew it mattered so much to me. “They’re in their own little worlds,” she says.

Even wisdom, however, needs fertile soil to take root. Instead of shrugging off people’s harmless foibles, I’m much more likely, when someone is in my way, to think my unspoken mantra: “What are you, stupid?”

God willing, I’ll also have my stride well into my ’70s. And once I don’t, I hope eventually to become like the fellow in the motorized wheelchair who raced past my daughter, Katie, who’s a fast walker herself—but was in high heels that evening. A few yards in front of her, he turned his head toward her. “Ha!” he cried and sped away.

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