October 22, 2007
These shoes were made for walking
terri mcintosh is senior editor in the department of development communications.
I’d hate to know just how much of my life has passed in cars. Starting with childhood family vacations across country, trapped for hours in the back seat with my infuriating older brother, and ending with the day-to-day, back and forth, soul-killing drives to work, I’m guessing it adds up to several years I’ll never get back.
I do not enjoy driving.
In the three decades since getting my license, I’ve been in seven accidents, not counting the time I scraped my passenger door against the garage like a ’50s sitcom housewife. I’ve been hit by a pickup, a taxi, a station wagon, a glass delivery van and a Mack truck, which kept on trucking. I chased it for several blocks in the darkness of early morning, flashing my lights and sounding my horn until the driver pulled over and fessed up.
I’ve been cut off, blocked in, flipped off, honked at, cursed out. In 2005, an angry man in a sparkling Mercedes, waiting beside my old unwashed Saturn at a stoplight, demanded I remove the John Kerry sticker from my bumper. Last year I was nearly sideswiped by an SUV with a “Jesus” license plate.
Each passing year, the experience of driving has become more unpleasant. Stuck in gridlock one evening because a reckless driver turned left from a right lane, I realized my tank was empty, my bladder full, and three of my friends waited on a tennis court I couldn’t reach even though it was just around the corner.
I finally decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I was tired of sitting in a box each day, listening to awful Atlanta radio and battling other motorists for a spot on the streets. I would stop driving to work.
In a sprawling city like ours, which didn’t even have a subway until 1979, this wouldn’t be easy. I was lucky enough to have scored a job at Emory, so I now worked five miles from my Decatur apartment instead of 10. Then Emory launched Cliff, my new best friend who could pick me up at North DeKalb Mall and take me to his home, the Clifton Corridor. Still, I’d have to drive to the mall or risk my life walking across two major thoroughfares in The City Too Busy to Stop for Pedestrians. This wouldn’t do.
So I moved. I found a sunny little condo just two miles from my office, which is in the old surplus property warehouse at 1762 Clifton Road. On rainy days, Cliff picks me up about two-tenths of a mile from my place and takes me to the 1599 building, which is just a short walk from work. When the weather is good, I walk the whole way, which takes about 30 minutes and is simply delightful.
I love to feel the pavement under my feet, say good morning to people I pass on the sidewalk, feel the breeze on my face. I love arriving at the office with cheeks flushed and blood pumping, full of energy to meet my day. I love the fact that even if I don’t walk home, which I nearly always do, I’ve already walked two brisk miles, a respectable workout in anyone’s book. I’m no longer compelled to drive to a gym and run in mindless circles like a gerbil in expensive athletic shoes.
Perhaps best of all, walking is good for the mind. I get some of my best ideas while on foot. A bad day isn’t even a memory by the time I reach home. And every day I learn something new. I’ve lived near Emory for nearly 20 years, for instance, and only just noticed that the posted speed limit on Clifton Road is, variously, 25 and 35. Did you know that? I’ll bet you didn’t.
Here are a few other things I’ve learned on the sidewalks and crosswalks of my community:
• There’s a tiny Stonehenge outside CDC.
• McDonald’s drive-through is open 24 hours.
• Many people are fat.
• In groups of four or five, high school boys are heartbreakingly awkward.
• Pugs come in black.
• In 325 B.C., Herophilus said,
“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself.”
• Firefighters wash their trucks almost every day.
When you drive all the time, you see the world through glass, and life becomes one big TV show. When you walk, the world is right there, underfoot, overhead, all around. It’s the scent of a fancy lunch that surrounds Le Giverny, the delicate click of bicycle gears, the lovely sight of a crescent moon in the daylight sky.
When I was strapped into my car, other humans were obstacles and accidents. Now that I walk and ride Cliff, they’ve become friends. I’m meeting so many great people who just a few months ago I’d have only seen through the glass. Anna, a grandmother with a thick German accent, feeds rice to her dog for an upset stomach. Melody, 6-foor-3 inches with a collection of beautiful skirts, loves her job in campus life. Catherine, a researcher who works in the suite next to mine, makes cremation urns in her spare time.
We’re all out there together, this new community of friends and I, growing stronger by the minute, crossing with the lights. If you should see me on your drive to work one day, be sure to wave hello but don’t offer a ride. I’d rather walk.
This essay first appeared in the summer 2007 edition of Momentum magazine.