sidewalk

Sidewalk. Just side and walk. A place to the side where you may walk. Something concrete to put your feet on, a safe lane whereon vehicles will not pass (you hope).

Streets didn’t use to have sidewalks. They were for walking on, and for riding horses on and pulling carriages on if you could make your way. Nobody went a whole lot faster than anyone else, generally. And much of the time it was all dirt and mud, and “mud” often meant what was left behind by the horses.

When it first appeared, in the 1600s, sidewalk meant a minor lane or path off to the side of a main one. We might call those alleys and side streets now. By the early 1700s it was also used to mean a raised pavement alongside the carriageway. And outside of North America, pavement is still the term commonly used for what Canadians and Americans call a sidewalk. But where I’m from, pavement is what’s on the streets – meaning where the cars drive, the asphalt – while the concrete on the sides is a sidewalk.

Which tells us that the foot-passers, the people walking and running and sometimes wheeling in wheelchairs and scooters, everyone who is not going forth clad in two or three tons of metal – a rigid, awkward mobility suit that takes up more than fifty times the space of the person in it (and most of the time it is just one person at a time) – is off to the side: peripheral, accessory, less important, less vital. 

In dense traffic, a city block can fit about 40 cars, which will typically hold about 50 people. The sidewalk can hold hundreds moving smoothly without collision. But our heavy expensive devices are our empires of the mind. No matter that every car must park sooner or later and the person inside go walking; no matter that streets were made for walking before they were given to cars. Walking is off to the side. It’s where you meet and pass people, where people ask you for money and directions, where you go into and out of stores, where you see the weather and the birds and the buildings close up and in detail. It’s where you truly encounter the concrete. But it’s off to the side now, and going-somewhere-else, insulated in a big expensive box, is the rule.

I’ve been thinking recently, for some reason, about a poem I wrote in 2007. It’s really why I decided to taste this word sidewalk today. Here it is.

A patch of sidewalk speaks

Well, I was
a rock, yes,
I did that thing
for a few million years.
It was fun, it had
a certain solidity,
and you know how
people think of rocks.
It was good.
But things change.
And I’m not willing
to say it was not
for the better, or it was
somehow not good;
I think I’ve been opened
to a whole new set 
of experiences:
soles, paws, 
tires, papers.
Where I was before,
those trees, that grass, 
the other rocks, 
they can be peaceful, 
but it loses its attraction.
Now every hour brings
thousands of new 
fascinations.
And I have new friends, 
we’re all in this together,
a lot of us who
did the rock thing back when
(though it doesn’t seem
so long ago, in
the grand scheme of things).
And I’m not kidding
myself, I won’t be
a rock again.
So I have to accept it.
But things change.
What’s not to like?

One response to “sidewalk

  1. That’s a beautiful poem.

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