I read somewhere that the first medical personnel who entered Hiroshima discovered many of the survivors who could walk were doing so. Scorched and burned people shuffled blindly around, going nowhere, leaving nowhere, arriving nowhere, yet in motion for the sense of motion, of doing something that could be done, and perhaps living witnesses to the way things were and would never be again, but mostly motion, motion, motion, as if doing nothing was too large a burden to bear in that moment in time.
Walking was something I knew how to do and in fact was likely the only thing that I could do well. It didn’t start out that way. My parents were appalled at how long it was talking me to learn how to walk so at eighteen months they decided to leave me outside until I could navigate the back steps of the house by myself. I managed to gain the top step, get upright, and then fell backwards, cracking my skull on the concrete steps behind me. Or at least that is one of the stories for the event. Like everyone’s deep personal history this is a black and white photo seen from a passing car in the dark while half asleep, not a video with sound and playback. It’s clear that something happened and there was a brain injury but how it happened has never been clearly defined and perhaps it is better that way.
It was 1973 or 1974, when my father called me from work and told me he had left a check on the mantle and I was to take that check to the courthouse and get a sticker for his car tag. Back in those days all the tags came due on the same day. A person could get one as early as they chose to but most people waited until the last moment and my father had too. He called me from work, and his job supplied him with a work car, but his personal car had to have a tag. He might have given me the check before I went to school that day and I could have walked from school to the courthouse which would have saved me a couple of miles but my father believed in walking, or to be more precise he believed in me walking.
So I walked to the courthouse and stood in line with everyone else who had waited until the last minute. This was hellish to me. I hated being in public. I hated waiting in line with all these people. I felt like the whole of the world was staring at me, judging me in some way, and the line moved at the pace of a drunken snail who had lost his crutches. But the check wasn’t all the information that was needed to get the tag. There had to be proof of insurance, too. So I walked from the courthouse back home and called my father with the news the check wasn’t enough.
He was furious with me, of course, and he demanded to know why I hadn’t taken the proof of insurance with me to begin with. I didn’t know anything at all about tags or insurance, or anything else about that sort of thing. This was all being done with one of those rotary phones with a three foot long cord. I went out to the car and brought in the mass of paperwork that was stuff in the glove compartment. I finally found the insurance card so off to the courthouse I walked once again.
The line was longer this time because people had begun to get off work and this time the people in the line were more surly. The line moved slower because some of the people at the courthouse had gone home. It was getting late in the afternoon and it was beginning to get cold, too. When I got to the front of the line the woman told me I needed the car registration, too, that the insurance card wasn’t enough. This wasn’t the same woman I had spoken with before so there was no point in bringing up this was not what I had been told before, and besides, this was during the days of Adult Infallibility. If an adult told someone under eighteen years old something that wasn’t entirely true then it was not the adult’s fault it had been misunderstood. I walked backed home from the courthouse and called me father to tell him I had gone up to the courthouse without the proper paperwork.
This time he was downright livid. He kept the car registration in his metal lockbox and he had the key with him. All I needed was proof of insurance and the check, now go get the damn tag and don’t come back without it. So I walked back to the courthouse, and by this time it was getting dark, and stood in line again with people who were getting seriously angry about being at the courthouse this late. A deputy came and stood at the end of the line and turned people away and I was frightened that he would send me away without the tag, too. When I got back to the front of the line I faced the same woman who had been there since early morning and she really didn’t have time to explain to me again why I didn’t have the proper paperwork to get the tag. “Didn’t I tell you what you needed last time? Okay, didn’t you hear me? Did you talk to your daddy about this? Did you tell him what I told you? Why did you come back here without it then? I swear you kids don’t know how to listen! Well, I can’t give you the tag now get out of here.”
So I walked back home again without the tag again. My father was home by that time and he was in a very seriously bad mood over how I had handled the entire tag ordeal. How hard could it be to get a tag? Hadn’t all those other people gotten a tag without all this fuss? It had embarrassed him to death for me to argue with that woman up there and here, here’s the registration now go get the tag.
I walked back to the courthouse and it was closed. I walked back home to tell my father the courthouse had been closed and he asked me if I had knocked on the door, had made any effort at all to get the tag. Did I know how much the late fee was going to be for it? What if he got a ticket, who was going to pay that? Had I done my homework yet? Had I actually even gone up to the courthouse or had I spent the afternoon screwing around? Because I hadn’t got the tag on time he was going to have to take off work to get it. That was more money thrown away because I couldn’t do a simple task like getting a tag.
I thought about this years later and honestly it seemed not to be just five or six years later, but thousands of years later, centuries uncounted later, but really, it was just 1980, but in 1980 my past seemed so terribly far away because at nineteen, five years in more than a quarter of a lifetime. Time seemed to stand still for days on end at that point in my life, not that my life had a point. I was a dishwasher at a truckstop and my biggest concern was making enough money for pot and alcohol. For some reason it fascinated me to sit on my front porch and drink. The duplex was a wreck, the porch not much better, but it was my first home away from my father’s house and that made me mighty. Or at least mighty drunk.
From my house on Wylly Avenue I would walk. I would walk the railroad track behind the duplex until a train came, or some crossroad beckoned me. I would walk with only major roads as guides as to where I might end up. I would walk down tiny side streets filled with tiny houses and the tiny lives of the people who lived there. There were tiny gardens and tiny trees. There were televisions that were so loud I could hear the programs from the road and I remember recognizing the voices from “Happy Days” even though I never really liked that show at all. I stopped and listened to the sound and at that point in my life I would have rather read that watched television but the sound was a home sound, a sound from my past, and at that very moment I felt a separation from myself, as if just being there, and just hearing the sound of a rerun in the afternoon, and not hearing it from where I once lived, made me more of who I would one day be.
There was a small street, a dead end street, where there was a white house with blue trim. The house was small, low, and it seemed to me the ceilings would have to be close to the heads of the people inside and a ceiling fan would be out of the question. There was three rows of glass windows in front that cranked out the panes as a set in each window, and each pane was perhaps two feet long and six inches wide, louver-like in nature. I stood looking at this house and a man came out and demanded to know why I was staring at his house. At that time I was five feet ten inches tall but I only weighed one hundred and ten pounds. I looked like a tall thirteen year old to most people and not many people I met believed I was nineteen. I didn’t answer the man and there isn’t any way that I could have. I didn’t socialize well at all. I couldn’t speak to strangers and being a dishwasher at a truckstrop meant I didn’t have to talk to people at all, except waitresses. So I ran.
There wasn’t a reason to run but what else was there to do? I found the railroad tracks and walked back down a few miles to the duplex and hunkered down with some cheap vodka. That had been close. A human being had spoken to me. I had to keep that to a minimum if I could, and I could. The odd thing is I never could find that street again. I never rediscovered the short house and the crank out windows. I felt compelled to look, but now my walks seemed oddly dangerous because someone had spoken to me.
There was a pair of brown tennis shoes I wore from the time I was fifteen or sixteen until I was in my twenties. I didn’t know how to buy shoes. I didn’t know anything about shoes at all except that I wore them. I had a pair of shoes bought for me in High School that I still have today. I keep them around because I wore them on my first date but they were never really comfortable. The brown tennis shoes I wore until the inside lining wore out and the soles wore down nearly as far. I put off buying new shoes for so long I couldn’t make the effort to buy new shoes, if that makes sense. It was like something that once I did I had to own up to the fact I hadn’t done it for so long, as if action were an admission of guilt. I wore those shoes so long I actually limped a little for a while because they wore unevenly. I remember the new shoes I got felt heavenly but I was afraid to walk too much in them because they wouldn’t last as long.
I’ve ventured back to this part of my life a time or two and I never connected my father’s making me walk as a form of punishment with my compulsion to walk when I had been drinking. But perhaps it is the same sort of mindless action that humans who have been abused participate in when they in some way seek out the same types of people who abused them, or become abusers themselves. Or perhaps it was all just motion for the sake of motion and the need to do something more than nothing. Or perhaps those whose lives become disrupted get on the hamster wheel of life and go for a walk because they have no idea what else to do.