I've been attempting to walk more ever since I was inspired / guilted by an article about a 90 year old man who runs the New york marathon each year... when he crosses the finish line, he celebrates by downing shots of scotch.
I was walking home from work the other day when I saw three women. They looked like the type of women my mother would go to church with. Frosted hair and manicured nails, color coordinated outfits from Talbots and Ann Taylor, and bags made of fabric patchwork.
For a moment I wondered if I was seeing projections, some mental flicker. But no there they were at the corner of Western district, the three of them huddled over a map, standing in front of a dried fish stall and next to a counter where a man was solemnly chopping the hooves off a pig's leg. They flinched each time he slammed his cleaver.
They were trying to look like they weren't lost, but unfortunately it was dinner rush hour, and they stood out, a solitary still island jostled by the waves of people pushing to catch a bus home.
I asked them where they were trying to go. And they turned to me, blankly relieved. They wanted to go see the light show they said. They were going to take the ferry to the pier, to see the lights from the harbor.
"I was so worried we'd" one of them said, her voice lowering to a whisper, "wandered into the wrong part of town.."
Wrong part of town? "Um.."
"You know like we'd accidentally crossed into the ghetto."
She giggled as she gestured around her. The man with the pig feet was still cleaving grimly and glaring at us.
I laughed too, couldn't help it. The ghetto? I guess she hadn't noticed my grocery bags.
"No this is not the ghetto... " Far from it lady... look at the cities in the U.S. "No this is a real nice area." Real nice area? my English. "Actually I live here. It's residential. Kind of like the suburbs. A real nice area." I repeated. Not really like the suburbs at all, but I didn't know what else to compare it to.
She looked slightly surprised, still unconvinced, like she wanted to say something, but she only said thank you.
As I watched them walk away, I wondered what it was that she saw. Perhaps it was just after seeing the chemical shine that is downtown central, the decapitated pigs and ducks hung by their long necks was a shock. The rows and rows of mysterious looking dried things set out on the sidewalk, the laundry flapping outside the windows of what seem like grimy buildings, the men with rolled up sleeves pushing carts of trash, the flickering lights of chinese lettering, the bamboo scaffolding with men sitting on it, while shoveling rice and chopped goose into their mouths.
I suppose I understood why they were confused. It's the panic of seeing any new place, it's hard to see past the foreignness. I remember the first time I saw New York, it was orientation week at NYU. I came out of 4th street station, duffel bag in hand, and all I could see were the rows of 6th avenue sex shops and the court where guys played pick up basketball, while people cheered and rattled the chain link fence. There was a small area of benches were people were sleeping and a man sweating in a huge coat was screaming into a megaphone and passing out pamphlets. And I thought oh no... what have I done.
Of course a year later, I was living behind those 6th avenue sex shops, and realized that what seemed like dark mysterious streets were actually expensive oyster bars and underground wine clubs. And the basketball court, a place for talent agents to scout new talent.
With more time, they would have noticed that within the rows of what seem like carelessly dried seafood, a fistful of dried maggot-like things is the cost of a small diamond, and a few dried phallic shaped sea cucumbers is worth more than a fabric pattern bag. They would have heard that the high humidity is what makes the buildings look rusted. And underneath they would have seen the buildings shine in pastel paint, robin's egg blue, mint green, and vivid orange.
As I walked the rest of the way home, I remembered riding the ferry by myself in the first year, whenever the dust and chemical clouds seemed to be suffocating and too dark. And I would watch the way dancing lights shone through the fog, like seeing the faint rainbows in spilled oil.