In many ways, I am a creature of habit. My wife teases that I am the only adult she knows with a set bedtime. One habit I developed 24 years ago is walking to work almost every weekday. I am tempted to give some lofty motive for this, such as reducing my carbon footprint or strengthening cardiovascular function. These are certainly pleasant dividends but, in reality, I walk to work because I like it.
This routine began out of necessity when we were a one-car family and I had only a two-mile commute from my home in the Town of Tonawanda to the University at Buffalo Main Street Campus. When the second car arrived 10 years later, I realized that I enjoyed my habit, and I continue to walk.
The morning walk gives me time to think about what I want to get done during the day. The return journey allows me to unwind and try to put worries and problems into perspective. Perhaps most interestingly, there is a view of life at foot speed that cannot be readily appreciated in a car.
As is typical of Buffalo, the neighborhoods I pass through on my commute do not turn over rapidly, and so glimpses of the lives of others unfold over time. There is the little boy, flanked by anxious parents, standing at the bus stop. Shirt tucked in, hair slicked down, he proudly carries his backpack for his first day of school. In the spring he is playing football with his buddies without much regard to his appearance, but by summer his hair is all important as he sits close to a girl on the stone wall at the top of University Avenue, laughing and smoking a cigarette.
These glimpses are like a minimalist sketch that suggests a form, but the details are filled in by the mind. I pass an elderly couple on the way home, and the man waves and informs me yet again that he no longer needs to work. One day a group of adults in their 40s shows up at the house for a few days, then leaves, and I do not see the woman again. About a year later the same group appears for a while, and the elderly man is nowhere to be seen. The house goes up for sale. I wonder what the old couple would say if they knew the new occupants do not maintain the house or property as nicely as they had done.
Remarkably, it never really occurred to me for the first 20 years that I, the observer, was also being observed. As if I were one of Dickens’ ghosts passing unseen through the lives of others. This illusion burst suddenly one day when I knocked on the door of a house on my route to inquire about replacing the concrete steps in the front of my house. I felt a little smug knowing in advance that the man works in construction and his kids went to the private Catholic school nearby. I watched them grow up.
He answered the door and said, “I know you. I see you all the time.” His wife appeared and said the same thing. One of their sons, a University at Buffalo policeman, recognized me as the guy who walked past his house every day when he was growing up.
As I turn onto my street, I think of the times when my kids turned that corner on their bicycles to eagerly greet me. Did anyone see them? Has a commuter felt the passage of time through my children? Can the fullness of their lives be accurately surmised from those brief sketches? After so much time, the roles of observer and participant have blurred beyond distinction. As I walk through other people’s lives, I see my own.
Mark O’Brian, who lives in the Town of Tonawanda, has been walking to work in all kinds of weather for nearly 25 years.