Still the one who walks

Deep in the pandemic, can a neighborhood’s character survive?

5 minute read
Nowadays, the ways we show kindness have shifted. (Photo by Anndee Hochman.)
Nowadays, the ways we show kindness have shifted. (Photo by Anndee Hochman.)

I didn’t ask for the reputation; I didn’t even know I’d earned it. But when my daughter was in high school, before COVID-19 topsy-turvied the world as we knew it, neighborhood pals would sometimes say, “Hey, I saw your mom on Germantown Avenue. Purple backpack? Penguin hat? And moves like she’s got someplace to go?”

My daughter might shrug, equal parts proud and embarrassed. “Yeah, that’s her.”

I am, apparently, The One Who Walks.

Perspective shift

For the 20 years we’ve lived in our Mt. Airy home, it was a twice-weekly ritual: I’d set out mid-morning, aiming to hit the post office, the bank, the food co-op and Staples. A dip into CVS if we were low on dental floss. Killian’s if we were out of light bulbs. El Quetzal if a friend’s birthday was coming up. All told, a brisk four-mile loop to the top of Chestnut Hill.

I did it for exercise, for a shift of perspective after too many hours at the screen. I did it to feed my thirst for novelty, my sticky-pad brain that cleaves to the odd, small detail: a pink mitten impaled on a cast-iron fence, a cake frosted in Mondrian rectangles in the window of Night Kitchen Bakery.

I could have chosen the woods for my ambles: it’s quiet there, sans car exhaust, with dirt trails that are kinder than asphalt to my knees. But my walks were never just about covering ground. They were adventures, arcs with characters and relationships, betrayals, breakthroughs.

My people

At Cooperman’s Pharmacy, a perpetually grouchy gray-haired woman shoved my prescriptions under a plexiglass screen and demanded to see my ID every time I wrote a check. Then the place closed abruptly, and suddenly I missed the owner’s begrudging business style, her surprising tenderness with the store’s overweight resident cat.

I opened an account at Santander when our daughter was still a prayer, an egg follicle and a syringe of frozen sperm. A year later, I schlepped her up there in a blue marsupial pouch. Blink: she was plucking a green lollipop from the basket Yolanda proffered. Whoosh: she needed her own debit card. When I showed up at the bank, eyes red-rimmed, the week Sasha left for college, Yolanda handed me tissues from some secret cache behind the counter.

And in the distracted weeks that followed my father’s death, when I couldn’t keep track of my body or my belongings, when I left my keys at the bank and my groceries at the post office. I would come home to voice-messages: “This is Juanita at CVS. I’ve got your vegetables, honey. I’m going to put that box behind the counter, okay?”

They’d become my people—Catalina at the eyeglass place, Tommy at the drugstore, Michael waving from his sweaty oven at Golden Crust Pizza. The woman who stopped mid-errand to search the brick pavers for my missing earring. The one I helped to maneuver her double stroller through the Starbucks door.

This is why I wanted to root myself in the city, where strangers bump up often enough to rub the strangeness off, where random encounters can shift the tenor of a day. Almost always, I returned home with my mind a bit less jangled, with a sense that the world was richly populated and astonishingly textured, filled with far more empathy than evil, more curiosity than indifference.

During the protests that sprang up in early June, Germantown Avenue shops showed their solidarity. (Photo by Anndee Hochman.)
During the protests that sprang up in early June, Germantown Avenue shops showed their solidarity. (Photo by Anndee Hochman.)

The new corridor

And now? The corridor has changed. Where’s the man with the half-moon smile who used to play bongos on the sidewalk in front of the hardware store? And the pewter-haired woman who pushed a wheeled grocery cart with silent purpose up and down the avenue? Where are the kids who used to run, shrieking, across the wooden foot-bridges of Jenks playground?

Some stores remain boarded up, their plywood chalked with “Kindness” or “Hope” or “Black Lives Matter.” Others have reopened—sort of, with take-out windows where gloved workers pass lattes in exchange for debit cards. The hardware store has rigged an outdoor sink, with a foot pedal, so customers can wash hands before they enter.

The vibe is different now. No one lingers. Conversations at the register are quick, perfunctory. We bob and weave through narrow aisles, follow the one-way pointers and the six-feet-apart floor decals. The post-office workers look sober behind their acrylic shields. At Staples, someone spritzes the copy machine with disinfectant as soon as I’m done.

Passing you passing me

These days, I sometimes take my ambles into the woods. It’s even quieter there. And as I watch the insistent Japanese knotweed, the wineberries blushing on their stems, I wonder: what is perennial in us? What flicker—resistance, love, grit, against-all-odds belief in making something better than we’ve got—will power us through this pandemic, and beyond?

I am still The One Who Walks. At least once weekly, I shoulder the purple backpack and stride up Germantown Avenue. Maybe I’m daydreaming. Maybe my throat is filled with tears. I’m the one passing you, doing the thing that feels so wrong, so counter to human connection: my back turned, my steps brisk, my eyes trying to say “I see you” as I hold my breath for an instant—1, 2, 3—long enough, I hope, to spare our lives.

For another perspective on walking during the pandemic, read Danie Jackson's essay.

Image descriptions: The first picture is a close-up on a freshly boarded window with a colorful illustration of two women holding protest signs taped to the wood. The word "kindness" is written on the board in white chalk. The second picture is of the front of a boarded-up salon with "Black Lives Matter" written on the wood.

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