Lone ranger walks again

Feb 15, 2013

In the New Yorker this week there’s part of a never-finished memoir by Joseph Mitchell, the great writer of urban personalities. The excerpt is titled Street Life, and it’s a recollection of Mitchell’s predilection for walking the streets and neighborhoods and districts and edges of New York City. Simply put, the essay is masterful. (It is available online to subscribers, but worth the $7.99 for the entire print issue.)

Here’s a part I particularly enjoyed:

As I said, I am strongly drawn to old churches. I am also strongly drawn to old hotels. I am also strongly drawn to old restaurants, old saloons, old tenement houses, old police stations, old courthouses, old newspaper plants, old banks, and old skyscrapers. I am also strongly drawn to old piers and old ferryhouses and to the waterfront in general. I am also strongly drawn to old markets and most strongly to Fulton Fish Market. I am also strongly drawn to a dozen or so old buildings, most of them on lower Broadway or on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Twenties and Thirties, that once were department-store buildings and then became loft buildings or warehouses when the stores, some famous and greatly respected and even loved in their time and now almost completely forgotten, either went out of business or moved into new buildings farther uptown.

After reading this, I wanted to get up and walk.

My Grandpa Sisco walked, early every morning through the streets of DeKalb, Illinois. In rain or bitter cold or summer heat beginning to build, he’d make his circuit through downtown picking up loose change, over to the new post office to deposit his correspondence, past St. Mary Catholic Church with a prayer or two, by the Ellwood House already thinking about the game of golf he’d be soon be playing, and then up the few steps to the apartment on First Street. He lived to be 96.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently searched my attic for my old clips and chronicles from Frank the Beachcomber. I also hoped to find Grandpa Sisco’s typed diaries, the day-by-day record of what he wanted to share with my mother 2,000 miles away. Sure enough, in the last of the boxes I found a stack of his papers, and I’ve been rereading them, marveling at the mundane details that he recorded: the day’s temperatures, which of my cousins stayed the night, how the NIU football team lost in the last minute of a game, why a week of rain couldn’t stop the Sisco Picnic from happening.

I mentioned these diaries in the Blogging for the Long Haul session at ScienceOnline2013 (video available in a week or two). As I regularly remind myself, I’m a blogger because of my grandparents, and it’s amazing to find myself in my grandpa’s diary in 1979:

Received a nice note from Anton. He sure writes beautiful and told me of the sale he went to and purchased his dad a tie. Gosh, I am so proud of him and then to have read 5000 pages during the summer is remarkable.

ScienceOnline2013 had a connection to walking. My friend, Scott Huler, led a group of our attendees (with cool scio-branded hard hats — the creative idea of Karyn Traphagen) on a tour of the Raleigh sewers and waterways, creatively captured in this video:

I think walking and blogging go hand in hand.

A few years back, when the Research Triangle Foundation (managers of the Research Triangle Park) was considering ways to make better use of social media, I proposed that they hire a ‘park ranger’ — someone whose job would be to roam the area and get to know the companies and buildings and people and activities and wildlife and botanical life as intimately as Mitchell got to know his city — and share it on social media. I also proposed something similar for Duke University, and Cara Rousseau as Duke’s social media manager is doing this even better than I imagined it, including leading people on a campus photo walk. A few of us are now working on ideas for how Duke Medicine can empower someone to walk the halls of the hospitals and clinics and research laboratories.

I take a daily walk myself — I’m not an early riser like my grandpa, so I get up from my desk around 2pm each day. I have my own circuit through the medical center and Duke’s campus, with variations that take me into the Duke Gardens or past the Duke Chapel. Reading Mitchell’s memoir of his walking, I’m now inspired to look even more closely at the buildings and at the trees and at the brick sidewalks and at the people going in and out and by and by.

Time to walk.

Anton Zuiker

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