In the past walking along a busy road in this town I felt exposed. There are no sidewalks; I walk in the narrow bicycle lane where the whoosh of cars gusts over me. But my sense of exposure was not an overwhelmment by the speed of the machines. I felt awkward that people in the cars could watch me drawing closer. For me the oncoming windshield was a blank, mirroring a speeding foliage of sky and trees. Just as it sped by, the screen would go transparent and a face or two would appear. And disappear. Whoosh. There was an encounter, of sorts. Or rather there was an uncertainty – an incompatibility. Could a walking person acknowledge a machine? What should be one’s eye contact with a machine – especially one in which people are strapped? I was aware of their presence, but the transience of the meeting encouraged a pretense of not-seeing. No etiquette existed to tell me what to do. To pretend not to see also made me uneasy, an evasion – a sign of masculine weakness? I would not stare at the oncoming car, but would usually toss it a direct look as it was about to pass.
Was this also a measure of insecurity? In this country, to be “without wheels” practically signifies a class castration, a loss of social potency as serious as waking one day to find oneself without legs. As a walker I was merely borrowing or impinging on “their” space. In a sign of American discomfort with the mixing of categories, cars usually swerve a wide berth around me. Actually, no categories were mixed. Technically, I was within the lane assigned to me. But categories are fragile and must be guarded. There was a fear on the part of the drivers of hitting me if I crossed the line, or if they strayed over. In this country, road etiquette takes the form of avoidance, a strict separation of spaces.
Our eyes were bound to meet. The driver and I approached each other from opposite horizons, drawn together by the ruthless logic of the 2 way road. I cannot not look at someone nearing me, especially from directly opposite. In my whole field of vision nothing is moving but this car, and I waver between treating it as a person and as an object.
Having lived a couple of years in New York I have practiced the skill of avoiding eye contact. There it is not considered shifty. The more bodies jostle and brush together the more do eyes withdraw from contact – people squeezed into subway cars or market aisles resort to rules of conduct, such as lines, optionally softened by a latent friendliness, and a capacity for self containment. This last is a feat. In the thickets of optical energy exuded by a carful of alert strangers, containing one’s eyes to acceptable surfaces is a feat – the ads for skin grafts near the ceiling, the space between the legs of people sitting opposite, or that ineffable unfocused gaze resting on the nothingness in the center of the car, a gaze which though directed toward other people, never manages to reach them, except as plaid or pinstripe backdrops for one’s own reverie.
I had not known when I got off the small commuter line in Madison last Friday that something in me had changed, or when. I bypassed the payphone and began walking the mile and a half toward home. In the leafy breath of a suburban air most mild, ambling was exactly right. And how deep was the pleasure of a snail’s pace. Was my visual leashing, habitual in New York, suddenly loosed like a dog in an open meadow full of scents? My eyes meandered over old details with fresh recognition: an iron road sign on the green, grown anomalous with the decades and now alone with its rusty streaks and elegant gestures at ornamentation. I wonder why it remains, when all other signs are reflective green and white letters, impervious to water, air, time, change. But not fashion. I observed gaps in the sidewalk, insects on the wing, the lean of trees often seen at 40 miles per hour, two houses poised at an odd angle to the road, refusing that straight-on obedience most houses go for, openings in a curtain, a boy’s batting stance, a church for sale, a box of a laundromat all alone in a dirt lot, a coach’s “Look at how you’re swingin’!” a peel of paint, a long driveway attended by trees, a porch and a flag with 13 stars, an old maple too near the road. On it was stapled a removal notice: public comment is directed to X office.
The deaf zoom of cars, like overly purposeful bumblebees, did not hurt my small journey. The windshields, reflective or tinted like the shades of secret service men, no longer aroused that faint unease. The cars had become part of the landscape, and I of the landscape. I was simply using the road as my path: no intruder. I fantasize of walking days on end, luxuriating in sensations.