There is country sauntering through field and forest, but city sauntering is quite a different thing. There is purposeful city walking — all those errands to the Third Avenue Woolworth’s for needles and thread (I grew up in Manhattan) or to Carl Schurz park so my dog Tuffy could do her business. But strolling up Lexington to see what is in the shop windows or around Chelsea to pop into galleries I choose willy-nilly on a whim is city sauntering – sheer, purposeless bliss.
In The Odd Woman and the City Vivian Gornick, a champion city saunterer (six miles every day), writes about the evolution of her walks as she grows older. For most of her life, she is preoccupied with movies running in her head about the life she would prefer and her disappointments at not achieving it. One day, this inner dialogue suddenly breaks off, leaving an acrid taste in her mouth, an inner shrinking and “unnameable anxiety.” She realizes at age 60 that she has been daydreaming her years away, so she resolves to be more open to the world around her.
Getting over herself reveals a multitudinous, marvelously diverse, and idiosyncratically human city life teeming around her; she revels, too, in creative eavesdropping:
“At ten in the morning, two old women are walking ahead of me on West Twenty-Third Street, one wearing a pink nylon sweater, the other a blue.
‘Did you hear?’…’The Pope appealed to capitalism to be kind to the poor of the world.’
‘What did capitalism say?’
‘So far it’s quiet.'”
“A hilarious exchange had taken place between me and a pizza deliveryman, and sentences from it now started repeating themselves in my head as I walked on, making me laugh each time anew, and each time with yet deeper satisfaction. Energy – coarse and rich – began to swell inside the cavity of my chest. Time quickened, the air glowed, the colors of the day grew vivid; my mouth felt fresh. A surprising tenderness pressed against my heart with such strength it seemed very nearly like joy; and with unexpected sharpness I became alert not to the meaning but to the astonishment of human existence. It was there on the street, I realized, that I was filling my skin, occupying the present.” 132
There is a moral, here, isn’t there? You can’t occupy your skin if you are overly self-occupied; you only inhabit yourself by opening wide to the wonders of the human race, with which you are intricately and intimately interwoven.