A person doesn't learn much driving around in a car, compared to what you can pick up on foot, and that's a sad fact about the way most of us live. Your car, comfort though it be, this little den and dining room on wheels, is a prison that deadens your senses, and to feel wholly alive you must go for a walk.
I was walking the other morning and saw a man sitting in his parked car listening to the radio. His windows were rolled up tight so he could listen to the music loud. He looked quite content. But he was missing out on spring, the smell of soil, the exhilaration of walkers, the whole show.
This was on Amsterdam Avenue in New York, a city made for walking. Everywhere you go, stimulating sights. Dogs striking handsome ballet poses, using hydrants or signposts for a barre, and ladies in black leotards power-walking, and ancients in wheelchairs pushed by young black women, and everywhere, people striding, jogging, pushing forward, young women loping along, old worried guys galumping and shuffling, the great surge and flow of life. It's moving to see this.
Smokers here and there, in front of bars and cafes, banished to the street, and women of transcendent beauty whom a man must remind himself not to stare at. A glance is allowed, but if you stare, a New York woman is likely to give you an intense baleful look ("What's your problem?") that can wither you for hours.
In the 96th Street subway station, the platform is crowded, which pleases me -- some of the job of waiting has been done by others -- and in a minute, a train comes clattering in, a local, and I gaze down the express track, trying to decide: Should I ride the tortoise or wait for the hare? I board the local. Sitting 15 feet away is a young man with an enormous long schnozz, and he is talking to a young woman with chestnut hair flowing onto her shoulders. She gazes at him and his nose, and it's hard to tell if they're an item or not, though she does touch his forearm and speak earnestly to him. He ducks his head. He is self-conscious. Or maybe the nose is heavy.
The tortoise chugs downtown and I expect the express to zoom past, thereby telling me that I have made yet one more wrong choice in life, but it does not. I arrive at Times Square and walk through the station. A string quartet is playing Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" with great energy, and I stop to drop a bill in their basket, which, on second glance, is a larger bill than I'd intended, but what the heck. Mozart in the subway is a real miracle.
Up to 43rd and Seventh Avenue, the heart of the National Neon & Billboard Scenic Area, dazzling even in afternoon light, snatches of Japanese and Norwegian and French in the passing crowd, and upturned children's faces, their parents steering them along, parents who seem dazed themselves. These are lifelong motorists from the Midwest, come to New York and put on foot, and of course they are wary. If you're used to being wrapped in two tons of steel, you feel naked without it. Anybody could walk up and poke you, anybody at all. You wait to be poked.
But it's exhilarating to be out in a crowd on a spring day. We are not alone. The world is larger and more interesting than we imagine. For all that we think we know, we don't come close to comprehending this world. A black evangelist in a blue polyester suit paces the corner of 46th and Broadway, a big Bible in one hand, and he thunders at the river of humanity, which shrinks away from him. "Do you know where you will spend eternity?" he cries.
I'd like to stop and chat with him -- he is of a vanishing tribe of the Lord's foot soldiers -- but he has his work to do and I have mine. Mine is to wander, which is what a writer does. When you walk in the open, exposed to beauty and grandeur and our common mortality, no words can quite suffice, but one must keep trying. It's a good life in a paradise of a world. Inscribe this in your heart, reader: Whenever you feel sad or bored, get out and take a hike.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.