I feel it mostly in my hips. With each step, I can vividly picture the ball turning in its socket, all the surrounding cartilage angrily inflamed. I’m not tired and my muscles may be tight, but it’s not debilitating. What makes it hard to continue is the focused, grinding pain in my hips with each step. It feels dry and scratchy, and I daydream about inserting the long red straw of a WD-40 can into the joints, coating them with soothing viscous oil. Problem solved. If you had asked me what would be most difficult about walking long distances I would’ve guessed exhaustion. But the pain comes before exhaustion – long before I run out of energy.
On Sunday morning, February 26th, 2012, Craig Shepard and I set out from northern Greenpoint to walk to Bensonhurst, a far-southern neighborhood in Brooklyn 9.9 miles away. It was the first of thirteen Sunday walks he will be doing over the course of three months. When we arrived, Craig set up on a concrete island under the New Utrecht Avenue elevated subway train at 18th Avenue and 85th Street. While he played his composition on a pocket trumpet, I took photographs of him and the activity swirling around him.
But there was an epic journey before us before we got there. And I think I wore the wrong shoes. In October of 2011, Craig and I walked the entire perimeter of Manhattan in one day. It came out to 39 miles. We stayed as close as possible to the border of land and sea, tracing the edges of piers when we could. For that walk I bought a pair of high-tech, high-top, super light Salomon walking shoes. They were magical: so light they barely registered and I didn’t get one blister from the moment I first put them on. I don’t recall the hip pain effecting me much until we were half way through that walk. That’s 20 miles.
This time I forgot to bring the Salomons. The shoes I had were a much heavier mid-calf boot with thick, soft insulation. Well-made with a good sole, but not necessarily built for long-distance walking. I didn’t think too much about it, assuming it wouldn’t be a problem and that I might appreciate the added warmth in the mid-30s weather. I was wrong. My hips starting hurting before we reached Prospect Park.
The walk was silent, though we decided that some gestures would be allowed: for stopping to stretch, or needing a drink or a bathroom break. We could talk again after the performance in Bensonhurst.
At first the silence was uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it’s cultural or particular to my experience – most likely a combination of both – but I tend to equate silence with anger. My mind will often jump to that fear first when conversation ceases. Even when the reason for silence is explicit, as it was this time, the fear can still arise. That connection is deeply entrenched.
How I tolerate silences with someone can be a useful benchmark for the evolution of the relationship. I know a friendship has reached a newer, more intimate level when we begin to successfully and happily ignore each other in close proximity. We even have a phrase for it: comfortable silence. It doesn’t mean the fear of anger lurking amidst the not-speaking disappears entirely, but only that it is more easily internally dismissed when it arises.
A friend recently told me about visiting a place she associated only with an old, devastating memory. She returned to the place with supportive friends, spending a long weekend in relaxation and recreation. The idea was to write new positive memories over the old one to diffuse the place’s singular, painful association. The nervous system can very stubbornly hold onto a perceived connection, even when you can prove to yourself it is logically false. My experience is that my brain’s reasoning capabilities have little effect or sway in changing an entrenched pattern of fear response to certain stimuli. But experiencing the situation again (and again and again) along with the non-dangerous outcome can lessen fear over time. In other words, you can’t talk yourself out of an unpleasant association, but you may be able to re-train your memory experientially. For me, “silence is always equivalent to anger” is a false association. Practicing silence with others is one way to teach my nervous system it doesn’t have to be scared.
The other thing I noticed was how eagerly and repeatedly I wanted to share my observations. At first, maintaining silence required a continual internal reminder. I was looking all around us at the places and people we passed, enjoying the light, colors, textures and shapes of the buildings, stores, sidewalks and people. The elaborate art painted on walls. Remembering times I had been on film sets. Places I and my friends had lived. The first two-thirds of the walk was through neighborhoods I knew very well from ten years of wandering, living and working. Greenpoint, Williamsburg, South Williamsburg, The Navy Yard, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Prospect Park. We didn’t pass one place I hadn’t passed many times before. Some corners I had spent twelve or more hours on, seeing the spot from before sunrise, through both rush hours and well into the night.
Part of what was nice about the silence in the walks was it allowed us to have our own experience in the moment, less influenced by the other’s ideas and reactions as it unfolded.
All of Craig’s Sunday performances are scheduled to begin at 1 pm, giving us a little over four hours to walk 10 miles. He had planned the walk expecting a 3 mph pace, which is commonly cited as a typical walking speed. It turns out that maintaining a 3 mph pace for four hours, though, was a grueling task. If you do not take any breaks or slow down at all, it would take 3 hours and 20 minutes to cover 10 miles. But, for me, walking that distance requires many short breaks to stretch, drink water and rest. The more time we lost to stops the faster we had to walk to maintain the average. Which became more and more difficult as the hours passed and the aches and pains of repetitive motion built.
Part of Craig’s project is what he calls a “transportation fast.” For three months from February 21st to May 21st, he is only walking, eschewing all other forms of transportation. No riding bikes, in cars or on the subway. He moves from one place to another only on foot. This means that, at the very least, he is walking 9 miles a day during the week to commute to work. By the time of the Bensonhurst walk he had already spent five days walking, on top of a few training walks before the project began.
I’m not participating in the “transportation fast” part of the project. Though I am generally in good shape, being prepared to walk long distances apparently requires not just general physical soundness. I had not particularly trained before the perimeter walk either, and, just as with this walk, I paid the price physically. It took about a week for me to recover from that one, but I was lucky enough not to do any lasting damage to myself. This time I was wearing heavier shoes and carrying a heavier pack since I was bringing photography gear I didn’t have on the perimeter walk: a tripod, extra lens and my larger and heavier DSLR.
My experience on the perimeter walk taught me something else: I couldn’t expect to photograph the way I usually do. Composing carefully requires stillness and I knew we would be moving most of the time. I decided to snap photographs more casually this time, while walking, and edit after the fact. Since the photos also record time stamps, they could also serve as a record of where we were when if we wanted to determine our speed later. Still, I couldn’t resist stopping on occasion to compose. As this usually required me to jog afterwards to catch up to Craig, a prospect that became less and less appealing as the we got farther into the walk, I didn’t do this very often.
Another byproduct of our silence was the ability to catch snippets of conversations of those we passed. The lovers’ quarrel on an outer path of Prospect Park, a woman complaining loudly to a friend in a pronounced Jewish-Brooklyn accent. And, even with our best intentions not to communicate, I could sometimes tell when Craig overheard or saw what I did. We might catch each other’s eye while smiling, or with raised eyebrows.
My favorite memory was of the two adult men playing a pretend baseball game with two little boys on a diamond in Prospect Park. As we approached, the first boy, a toddler, ran from first to second with the encouragement of the nearby pitcher/father figure. With a little help he finally found second base and stopped to bend over, inspecting his feet and the ground with intensity. The other man stood at home base with the other boy, also a toddler. The pitcher made an exaggerated display of throwing the non-existent ball towards home plate and the batter swung a fantasy bat making a resounding silent hit. They yelled for the boys to run. Run! When the pinch runner reached first, the batter yelled to keep running to second.
“But I want to stay here!” protested the boy.
“That was at least a double I hit,” the batter half-seriously complained as the other boy rounded third and headed for home.
The area that was least familiar to me was Borough Park, the large Orthodox Jewish neighborhood just south of Greenwood Cemetery. Their religion is the most conservative of Orthodox Judaism, sometimes called Haredi and sometimes called ultra-Orthodox, though from what I have gleaned, both terms cause offense to some people. I have always just heard them called Hasidic Jews, though I know the Hasidim are only one branch of a tradition that takes many different forms. As an outsider, all the nuances of difference of observance between sects are beyond my understanding, but the general style of dress is very distinctive. Men commonly wear black suits, long black coats, and hats. A black hat with a wide, circular brim is very common, as are long beards, black kippahs and short hair or shaved heads with long, uncut sideburns. The women dress very conservatively in long skirts, sleeves past the elbow, covering their hair with scarves or wigs. The style of clothing decidedly not modern, and the effect is starkly anachronistic. It also made Craig and I easy to distinguish as outsiders at a glance. I felt the most like an interloper or tourist as we traipsed through Borough Park, my tripod strapped to the back of my backpack.
I am familiar with the Hasidim, as there is a large population in South Williamsburg, near where I have spent much of my time in New York. Despite the proximity, though, I have had very little interaction with anyone Hasidic and there is a lot about the culture that still seems very mysterious and remote. It is an insular community, very difficult to engage with in any meaningful way if you are not a part of it.
When we finally reached Bensonhurst, known as the “Little Italy” of Brooklyn, Craig was multiple blocks ahead of me. I had stopped to take a few pictures and didn’t have the energy or desire to catch up to him again. 1 pm was rapidly approaching.
When I arrived and began to set up my camera, I was happy to see he was wearing his bright blue windbreaker. This would work great in the animation, making him easier to spot in the frame.
I barely heard Craig’s performance. Not because I wasn’t interested or couldn’t physically hear it, but because all my attention was on my photography. When I am most fully engaged in photographing, it’s as if all my brain power and focusing ability is diverted strictly to the visual, leaving no bandwidth for my other senses. I can’t carry on meaningful conversations when I am in this state. It’s one of the main reasons I have chosen not to photograph during important events in my life: if I want to be fully present for something, I can’t have a camera in my hand. I often leave the casual documentary snapshots to others.
While perched near the curb, my tripod set up low to the ground, a woman stopped.
“OK, I just have to ask, what’s going on here?” she said gesturing to Craig playing across the street.
Unable to give her my full attention, I said something like this, “His name is Craig Shepard and he’s doing a project…..”
Not unkindly, she replied, “But he’s only playing one note…?” as Craig sustained a long note on the trumpet in the background.
How to answer? “They’re his own compositions he’s playing,” I responded, while continuing to watch the action in front of my camera intently while I snapped photographs.
She began to walk away, saying as she left “Oh! Very interesting….I wish him all the best….very interesting….”
I wish I could’ve spoken with her more because she was clearly engaged and interested, exactly the kind of passerby I appreciate. And her question was the kind that opened up many possible avenues of conversation about Craig’s work, ideas of what music is and isn’t, public performance and audience expectation. The fact that she stopped to wonder about what she was hearing was a great sign.
On the walk back, we decided to slow the pace considerably. There was no time constraint on the return and it was pretty clear I wouldn’t be able to manage walking very fast.
As we rounded the southeast corner of the Navy Yard and turned onto Kent Avenue for the home stretch I felt a strange tug in my right hip. Something was wrong. I had been in near-constant pain for the whole return walk, but this felt different. I was limping. After resting a while, stretching and walking about a half mile more, we decided I should catch a cab home. I left Craig with only 1.7 miles to go. I was sad to have not completed the walk, but immensely relieved to be sitting in the back of a car, five minutes from home.