Like most people, I’ve been walking since I was a year old. I started doing it seriously when I was 13 or so, and as a result my calf muscles are massive, like hams. My family’s house was at the furthest edge of Raleigh, North Carolina – in the last suburb there was – so in the beginning, I’d walk in the country. Then, like an overturned bucket of molasses, the town grew. One development followed another, and I found myself wandering through neighborhoods so new they smelled of plywood, which actually smells of formaldehyde. Driving didn’t appeal to me for some reason. Working didn’t either, but my parents forced me to earn my own money when I turned 16. I found a job in a cafeteria – washing dishes – and would most often walk there and back. “That far!” my friends would say. It surprised me to learn that none of them would think of covering that distance on foot.
I’ve always had an active fantasy life, so that’s what I devoted my walking hours to: daydreaming. The life I imagined for myself trudging through Raleigh, soaked through with filthy dishwater, was exactly the life I wound up with. “I’m going to write books and live overseas with a ridiculously good-looking, artistic boyfriend. Then I’ll buy a beach house everyone can use and …”
I don’t know what it is with Americans yelling out their car windows at cyclists and people on foot, especially in the country. It’s happened to me only once in the UK – out of all the miles I’ve covered. I was collecting rubbish along the side of the road outside the village of Storrington when a guy – red-faced with rage – stuck his head out the window of his white van. “Bin man!” he yelled.
In America it’s always faggot for some reason, which is odd, as shopping seems much gayer to me than walking along the road and I’m never singled out in stores, not even in ones that sell capes. Of course the allure of such name calling is anonymity – the quick escape. The last time it happened I was in Dayton, Ohio, with my friend Adam who is not gay and, to my mind, would never be mistaken for gay. “Faggot love,” caroled a girl riding in a passing car with friends. She was halfway out the window, in a tank top, her long, straw-colored hair blowing in the breeze. I often think of her, and wonder where she is now, which federal prison or rehab center. Rotting away, poor thing.
It’s fascinating, the things you see when you’re out on foot. I was in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, once, walking through a suburban neighborhood, when I came upon a slice of pizza lying face down in someone’s driveway. “What on earth?” I said to myself, as I stood staring down at it. I’ve discovered far more disgusting things – human turds come to mind, coddled in a rain-soaked pair of Y-fronts and being feasted upon by slugs – but nothing has ever moved me quite like that slice of pizza. It’s what comes to mind now whenever I think of Wisconsin. Not cheese or Joseph McCarthy. Not even the visits I made with my first real boyfriend and the crazy sex we had in motels there, both of us so young.
Just that slice of pizza.
When I think of Normandy, where I spent a dozen summers, and where I walked for miles every afternoon, I think of vicious dogs. That was the problem with the country side near La Bagotière, the hamlet where our house was. By law your animals had to be either penned or tethered, but in what I came to think of as a very French way, no one ever thought the rules should apply to him. “Don’t worry,” farmers would call at the sight of me in the middle of the road, slowly backing away from their snarling mastiff or German shepherd. “He doesn’t bite.”
“You,” I’d always shout back. “He doesn’t bite you.”
Alghero, in Sardinia, was bad that way as well. That was a good thing about walking in Reykjavik. Dogs were technically banned there until 2006. You could apply for an exception, but I’m guessing it was a pain as I only saw one during my entire five-day visit, and he looked like he’d give his front paws for an asshole other than his own to sniff.
I don’t recall dogs in Dubai either. I was there with my old friend Dawn, a fellow Fitbit wearer. We both put in a good 15 to 20 miles a day, but changed our schedules due to the heat and did most of our walking at night. The place we stayed at was not grand in any way – nothing like the shimmering towers that city is known for. My room’s one window was nine feet off the ground. Also odd was that my door was secured from the outside – with a padlock – but not from within. It was sort of like jail. The neighborhood we stayed in was lively at night, but sober lively, the kind where men hung out at groups at 3am, talking quietly and drinking apricot juice. Most were workers from India or Pakistan or the Philippines, husbands separated from their families and living eight to a padlocked room. On several occasions during our stay, we walked to a 24-hour Indian supermarket. On the second floor, in a sad little clothing section, we came upon a bedazzled sweatshirt with the word “Activity” written on it. No particular team, let alone sport. This was as hypnotizing to me as that slice of pizza in Wisconsin.
In Abu Dhabi we walked a promenade along the riverfront, marveling yet again at the sight of all these unintoxicated people. Midnight, and there was none of the aggressive drunken energy you’d find in the UK. No one shouting or kicking over trash cans. No one saying: “What are you looking at?”
Also refreshing, and really sweet, were the great numbers of young children out with their parents at midnight.
When do they sleep? we wondered.
When do they? the kids likely wondered back, as Dawn and I were out until all hours. “Just one more mile,” she would say. “Did I say one? I meant two.”
I’ve walked through cities all over the world, and the worst, by far, is Bangkok. It might be different if you’re a man with his wife or sister, but when you’re alone, you get taken for a sex tourist, and are hounded every moment of the day and night. “Psst, you looking for girls? Young girls? I got girls.”
You’re followed and hectored and yanked at. Ho Chi Minh City is bad for that as well, though at least the women offered there are fully grown. The problem with the Vietnamese pimps is that you can’t easily cross the street to escape them. The traffic in that country doesn’t stop for anything. People tell you to proceed as you normally would, that the cars and scooters will go around you – and they do, but I was never convinced I wasn’t going to get struck down. And so I’d walk around and around the block my hotel was on, and get asked every 10 seconds if I was looking for a woman.
That happened in Hong Kong as well. My boyfriend Hugh and I were wandering about after dinner, and again and again I was propositioned. That had happened on a few occasions when I lived in Chicago, back when I was in my 20s and I recall being flattered. It’s not that I wanted to be a straight man, but there was a definite freedom in being able to pass as one. Now, though, in my mid-50s, I found it, if not insulting, then at least depressing. First off, why was it always me being propositioned, and never Hugh? Unlike him, I supposed, I looked single. Not the sort who’d chosen bachelorhood, but the sort it had been imposed upon, the type for whom having sex meant paying for sex. Either that or I looked like the guy who’d go on a business trip, get together with a prostitute I met on the street, and then return to my family. “How was Hong Kong?” my wife or daughter might ask.
“Oh,” I’d moan, duplicitous to the core, “the same.”
The fifth time I was propositioned, I told the woman who’d offered herself that I was gay.
“What business is that of hers?” Hugh asked.
“I didn’t want her to think that my saying no had anything to do with her personally,” I told him. “I don’t want her to think she’s not pretty enough.”
‘You’re ridiculous,” he said.
What is Walking the City week?
As cities around the world close central streets to cars to mark World Car-Free Day, Guardian Cities is looking at the joys and trials of urban walking.
The US humourist and writer David Sedaris tells us about walking in cities from Raleigh to Reykjavik. Will Self explains what he learns from perambulations in London, there’s Fran Lebowitz in New York, Helen Garner in Melbourne, “natural navigator” Tristan Gooley in Portsmouth, and writers on Delhi and Newcastle, Cairo and Wellington.
Laura Laker casts a critical eye on the performance of Vision Zero, the global city scheme to eliminate traffic deaths. London has signed up – will it enjoy the success of New York, or the delays of LA? The recent blocking of Sadiq Khan’s plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street does not bode well.
Correspondent Stephen Burgen samples the newfound silence in the Spanish car-free city of Pontevedra, and Matthew Keegan discovers what prompted Hong Kong to reopen a popular pedestrian street to vehicles.
Renate van der Zee looks at the rise, fall and rebirth of the Lijnbaan in Rotterdam – Europe’s first pedestrianised street – while Rachel Aldred at the University of Westminster crunches the numbers to identify the most dangerous London boroughs for people on foot.
Oliver Wainwright explores the City of London’s forgotten Pedways – and asks whether these 1960s walkways can make a comeback.
We consider the phenomenon of “desire lines”, examine the art of following a stranger in the hope of seeing a city in a new light, and much more.
Nick Van Mead
The next prostitute wondered if I wanted a beautiful lady, and the one after that asked where I was going. I told her, and she offered to walk me back to my hotel and stay with me for as long as I wanted. “That’s OK,” I told her. “I’m a homosexual.” I don’t think her English was too good, as this only caused her to ask again. “A fag?” I said. “A faggot?”
“I have places to walk to. Lots of places, so I need to be outside.”
I turned to Hugh for help and saw him rounding the corner at high speed. With my map in his hand. And my phrase book in his back pocket.
“Miles to walk,” I continued as the woman took my hand. “Miles and miles and miles.”
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