In praise of city walking

This is the time of year everybody talks about walking, rather as if it were the very latest form of transportation to be discovered. The woods and trails must be overrun with the traffic jam of essayists, scribbling their walking notes.

The set piece about the walk in the country takes certain approved turns. There is what may be classified as the Walt Whitman walk - down ''the long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.'' To some of us, this is a fair description of a man making the best of being hopelessly lost. But for the Whitman walker, these words constitute an anthem to freedom, as in the line: ''Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.''

Thoreau agreed that ''absolute freedom'' was what a walker was trying to walk into. But the Thoreau walker - practicing his ''genius for sauntering'' at least four hours a day - is also identifying freedom with solitude, after the American fashion. The Concord hoofer prided himself on being able to walk over 10 miles without seeing a house or even a road.

Wordsworth, one of the legendary Lake District walkers, certainly found the world too much with him, as he put it. But the representative English walker does not seem so intent on being the only footman in the Garden of Eden. Walking and meditating on one's oneness is the American tradition; walking and talking is the English tradition. Keats once listed the subjects discussed by Coleridge during a relatively short stroll: nightingales, dreams, poetry, and the distinction between ''will'' and ''volition.''

If the Englishman makes walking into somewhat of a social act, it still tends to go by twos - and mostly in the country. Dickens wrote about walking the streets of London, but only because he couldn't sleep - and a dreary wandering he made of it, in the rain, through an ''interminable tangle'' of ways and byways.

The French and the Germans appear to have paid the most attention to city walking. The French even invented a word for the city walker: boulevarder, not be be confused with boulevardierm. City walking for a Frenchman is an exercise in style. ''As I walked along the Bois de Boulogne with an independent air . . .'' - so the old lyrics sang, and every walker turned into his own Maurice Chevalier.

''Strolling through the town became a new urban pleasure for the Berliner'' in the 1920s, Anthony Heilbut writes in his new book, ''Exiled in Paradise,'' declaring the German essayist Walter Benjamin to be ''the supreme exponent of this exercise.'' Benjamin even matched his prose to his pace as a walker. Did Thoreau or Whitman manage that? Some country dawdlers would never finish a sentence on those terms.

The tempo the city walker walks to is a kind of jazz. Your urban expert can produce a springy step out of cement and asphalt that a country walker can get only from a meadow after a rain.

If the purpose of the country walker is to slow down to nature, the need of the city walker is to speed up for taxis and other walkers.

The city walker survives by constant motion - a nonstop tap dancer.

Even the eyes of the city walker seem to move to jazz. He takes inventories of store windows the way a country walker counts butterflies in flight.

Above all, he watches the other walkers, searching the passing masks like flash cards for a glimpse of humanity. Something bearing witness to humor or gentleness or intelligence, clocked at six or seven miles per hour.

Much has been made of the city street as a metaphor of physical and human squalor. Read ''Moll Flanders.'' Look at a Hogarth drawing. See the movie ''Taxi.'' But also walk your own favorite city street in the late-May sun. There is a ''carnival spirit,'' as Walter Benjamin pointed out, when the family of city men, in all their loneliness, takes to the sidewalk, ice cream cones in hand.

The country walker will always have his celebrators as he paces himself with dignity to the rhythm of the universe. Let us now, for once, praise the city walker as - at a mad sprint, a desperate shuffle, an off-balance buck-and-wing - he tries to catch the beat of the human race.

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