I haven’t decided what side of the highway I prefer to walk on. They each have their specific advantages and disadvantages. Because I don’t know how to drive, walking on the right side feels like an act of faith my rational mind can’t fully embrace. I’ve yet to accept that human beings with similar evolutionary origins to my own can navigate a two ton vehicle mere feet away from me while singing We Found Love and dunking chicken nuggets into honey mustard sauce. The right side of the road frightens me. There, I can’t see the impending doom I’m convinced is heading right for me.
If I walk on the left side, I’m facing the cars. Because I can see them, I’m more confident I know how to react and that they’ll react to me, in case of emergency. There’s security in this. But then there are the stares. Car after car flies past me, stealing a glance to the vagabond walking besides the highway. It is a lonely feeling. Of course, such loneliness seems impartial to the side of the highway I’m walking on. Except the left side requires me to acknowledge this loneliness to strangers. The right side doesn’t.
Despite current climate disruption, with temperatures hitting triple digits more often than a Stephen Strasburg fastball, when I walk beside the highway, I wear jeans. The only jeans I own that weren’t bought to channel my inner indie rocker are black. This doesn’t stop me. By this point, I’ve learned that when traveling with no destination, wear the heaviest clothing to spare enough room in my North Face backpack for the essentials: underwear, clean socks and clothes I don’t mind ditching if they get wet. If there was ever a signal that I’m a hobo, it’s a black man with a black track jacket and black jeans with a massive backpack wandering a country highway at 4pm in the middle of a drought. Still, wearing jeans is functionally the best. Had I worn shorts, my ankles and shins would face the barrage of weeds and brush that twist along in highways. It itches. In general, I’ve always hated being touched. So despite the weather, I cover up.
Growing up in New York made me a walker. No matter where I find myself in life, I know I’ll always be one. The city offers unlimited anonymity to its walkers that is comforting. Because I’m shielded by the masses or the darkness or the skyscrapers, no one wonders why I’m wandering along the West Side Highway or the Williamsburg Bridge or Queens Boulevard. No matter the place and no matter the time, New York is big enough and unpredictable enough so that there’s a reasonable explanation for why I’d be anywhere. More importantly, no one really cares. I like this.
Sometimes I wonder what people are seeing and how they’d imagine me to be. No matter if I’m sleeping on a subway or a secluded shed or a bus stop or a couch, in my heart, I’m always Robert. I see myself as friend, former student at one of the “Hottest Colleges in America”, New Yorker, professional unpaid intern, awesome test taker, writer, voted “Best Personality” and “Most likely to write a book” in high school. Despite the circumstances, this doesn’t change.
When drivers see me, they see a kid sprawled on the ground holding his chest to catch his breath alongside the road. There’s a lot one could assume about a person in such a situation. He’d be the victim of bad choices, have no family, have no money and have no future. Of course, I would disagree. But if I’m honest, I’m forward to ask which account is more accurate, theirs or mine?
If you’re still reading this, the natural question to be asking is “Why?” I’ve asked this question to myself plenty of times. When I’m walking along the highway, believe me, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. There’s a simple reason. I don’t know how to drive and I find myself outside of New York, so I walk.
I did have a pair of jeans that weren’t black. They were loose. Blue. Adequately ordinary. When my fashion sensibilities expanded after high school, I discarded my JCPenny’s Clearance wardrobe for more Urban Outfitter ridiculousness. Slightly baggy was not the look I was going for. Now, they were entirely useful. For sleeping in or for walking, they were simply peerless pants.
I was visiting my sympathetic, lovely ex-girlfriend in Virginia Beach. I got off the Chinatown bus around midnight. Her mother was in town and planned on leaving that morning. Naturally, I had no interest in seeing her. But instead of waiting another day to arrive, I figured I’d come in the early morning and walk the six miles to her apartment. As I imagined it, by morning, the sun would have risen, her mother would have been gone, and I’d have completed another evening for my archives.
So when I arrived I began to walk, left side. Thankfully, Virginia Beach Boulevard is straight and flat. I passed car dealerships and fast food restaurants. The walk was pleasant. Within the first fifteen minutes, a small SUV passed me by. I watched it make a U-turn and tracked its motion back to my side of the road. I wondered if, for the first time in all of my highway walking travels, someone would offer me a ride. I was touched. I didn’t have a place to go for a few hours and would have made some sort of excuse about being close to where I was heading and declined. But it was a nice thought! I didn’t break stride, I just watched the car ride toward me like a jousting Heath Ledger.
They did not offer me a ride. Instead, without a word, two arms cocked outside of the window and launched eggs toward me. They connected. The impact was quick, as if a wooden spoon had hit my leg. In took me a few seconds to let it sink in. I got egged. I didn’t break stride. I wasn’t angry. I walked, completely befuddled at what had just gone on.
Up ahead, I saw a 7-Eleven. I walked inside and headed toward the Slurpee Machine. I poured together a large. Pina Colada. I wished the clerk a wonderful evening, as if being a black man after dark with egg stained pants was the most natural customer in the world. I left walking as if nothing was out of the ordinary, sipping away, walking at will.
I stopped to rest an hour or two later in an abandon street mall. I sat under a light post, where I could see the damage done. It was disgusting. A black security guard drove by and stopped. He looked worried, but to professional to ask any personal questions to the Slurpee drinking bum out at 3am. He asked if I was all right. I said I was.
Some people accuse me of enduring less-than-pleasant circumstances for the story of it. I could get a taxi. Find a room. Stay with a friend. Call my parents. Whatever. I don’t fully object but I definitely don’t agree. Sure, there is a pride that comes with feeling that I can endure more than most. I assume the role of adventurer, climbing Everest with only a compass and Snickers bar. A lesser man wouldn’t be able to live like I’ve lived with only a large McDonald’s coffee and irrational optimism.
That’s why the rain matters. I’ve walked in thunderstorms and steady rains and I’ve suffered the colds that follow despite the summertime. This is why I disagree with these accusations. The only thing I like more than great story is having dry socks. I’ll take dry socks every time.
When I’m walking by the highway, I feel most an artist. Not because I’m this cliché writer with no possessions except the profound thoughts in my head. It’s not that. I’ve walked with no destination and nowhere to return. In those moments, my mind is overloaded with ideas. In those moments, there’s no value in fantasizing about the future and there’s no comfort in looking to the past. On the highway, the entirety of my world is carried in a backpack and my back pocket. Obviously, my official position on the matter is that it sucks. But secretly, it’s pretty cool. I’ve nothing to hide because nothing worth hiding exists. Which is fun to think about.
That’s why I’ve learned walk on the left side. Along the highway, I am everything people would assume someone who walks along the highway would be. I’ve nothing to deny. I’ve no image to project or facade to maintain. I don’t have a ready defense for why I’m there or why you ought think more of me than what the circumstances suggest. On the left side, I’ve learned not to avoid the glances and stares. I meet them right back. With humility and steadiness, I look back and silently confirm, You’re right.