At the end of March, the writers William Helmreich and Michael Sorkin died in New York City, just a few days apart, of coronavirus.
They had much in common. Each wrote a book about walking.
And that is what makes their tragic loss so apt for all of us trying to survive the same pandemic that killed them.
Many of us are taking walks now. It’s an escape, a diversion, exercise. But it can be a lot more.
It can be a glue that holds together different pieces of our fragmented, frightened lives.
Diamond Head looms in the distance as a masked man walks along the nearly empty beaches in Waikiki. Walking has become an important and popular exercise in the face of stay-at-home orders.
Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat
The authors’ ideas have a lot to offer about walking in times like this. Their books are very different, yet they both show how powerful and important a walk is as a way to keep connected and hold onto our sense of place when we feel so vulnerable.
So part of this is a tribute to them, whose work I did not discover until about the time they died. (In fact I had no idea that Helmreich had died until my son told me.)
The best tribute, though, is to use their ideas as a guide for, let’s call it, deep walking.
Deep walking can tap into memories that fill the gaps that social distance creates. It is a way of keeping links with your friends and neighbors even though you can’t talk to anyone on the route.
Deep walking is not rocket science, but there is a method to it. That is where Helmreich and Sorkin come in.
Learning To Walk: A Two-Step Guide
Step One: Stories anchor you to your sense of place. So focus on the stories triggered by what you see, feel and imagine on your walk.
Think of walking in your neighborhood. A neighborhood, Sorkin says, is “a bundling of stories, the transmission of the people’s own versions gives meaning to a neighborhood.”
A neighborhood is partly determined by our “private geographies,” how we map the neighborhoods in our own heads. (There are fascinating studies asking people to do this.)
Helmreich’s was a huge project. He walked — really! — every one of the 6,000 streets (167,000 miles) in New York City to write “The New York Nobody Knows.”
Sorkin is a ruminator. Helmreich isn’t so introspective. He would probably say to Sorkin, “Right, Michael. And this is how we work it.”
And work he did, gathering hundreds of stories.
(In a gang-controlled Bronx neighborhood Helmreich broke the ice by walking up to member of the Bloods and asking him where he could get a red jacket like the one the gang member was wearing.)
In other words, stories form — and preserve — our connections with our surroundings, with the people and places that are important to our normal lives.
So when you walk, do what storytelling teachers advise their students: start by imagining a place.
Let that take you somewhere. What do you remember?
Step Two: Let the site you are looking at speak to you.
Try imagining a story about the place you’re walking.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sorkin was an architect, so this step was his meat and potatoes.
What do the structures and forms of things say about us? For instance, why does a building look the way it does? How does its form affect the way we live? How do single or separate entrances affect us? Porches? Lanais? Or outside walls?
Using The Guides On My Own Walks
So I have tried the guide out. Here is a fragment.
I usually walk in Portlock, a 5-minute drive from my house. I turn onto my favorite street, Makaweli, a quarter-mile road that begins just past Koko Head School.
I notice how many homes, not just the fancy ones, have high walls and wonder what that says to me about privacy, neighborliness and street life.
I notice the contrasts. No busy Hawaii Kai ambulance sirens in an entire one-hour walk. Considering what’s going on, the silence is not relaxing because it reflects a false peacefulness.
Late in the walk I pass the deserted Koko Marina shopping center. This is what I think about when I see the emptiness:
When you’re out for a stroll, remember to use your head and know your place.
Over the 40+ years I’ve lived in Hawaii Kai, I gradually began to think about Koko Marina in a different way.
Originally that shopping center was a mishmash of tourist-oriented businesses, some other small local businesses (like the pet store that had a black and white domestic rat named Sidney greeting customers at the cash register), and a few restaurants that never seemed to do well.
A typical suburban shopping center with a huge space for vehicles but only a little common space where folks might gather, which they hardly ever did.
Over time, though, it has become something different, a neighborhood marker. Foodland was seen as a neighborhood store, which helps to explain why there was so much sadness, anger and protest when it lost its lease.
Now, Koko Marina has become a gathering place full of stories.
It is not exactly French café society. The outdoor tables are clumsy, uncomfortable concrete monstrosities with unmovable benches, all cemented into the ground. A kind of begrudging accommodation to people in Hawaii who like to sit outside (go figure!) and talk.
The last social-distance violators I saw there were two guys my age sitting at one of those tables drinking gas station coffee because their usual haunt, Starbucks, was closed.
My memories will have to do for now, until things get better.
When folks return to sit and talk story, Tyson, the social-nearness pit bull, is back begging for treats, and Kawela, the shy rescue dog, claims his safety space under the table below Local Motion’s window.
When he learned of William Helmreich’s death, his colleague, Jonathan Sarna, said, “He was in the wrong profession for the coronavirus. Willie loved talking to people. Social distancing was not in his nature.”
It’s not in our nature either. That’s why a walk should not be just a walk.
That’s why when you’re out for a stroll, remember to use your head and know your place.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.