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Walk This Way: In Praise of Footpower

How far did you walk today? If it was from your front door to your car door and then your car door to your office door then you are a lazy slug.

Sorry, that's not nice. I fear that a year living in England without a car and now trading a Metro parking lot space for a 20-minute walk to the subway is in danger of turning me into a militant pedestrian.

There are lots of good reasons to ambulate bipedally. For starters, it lets you lord it over dogs, who can walk, but require four legs. Of course, it's also good for your health and good for the environment. But what I like best about pedestrianism is that it lets you see the world around you. Now, I wish I could report that the world around you is full of glorious nature but instead it's full of inglorious man--or, more accurately, inglorious man's trash. It's easy to ignore how junky our landscape is when you're zipping over it at 50 mph. (Though that it might be junky can probably be intuited from the state of the inside of your car. I mean, really.)

But even trash has a certain poetry about it. Just as our ancient forebears knew every leaf and vine in the jungle, so modern-day man knows all the trash he encounters. For example, for weeks I have been passing this flattened ovoid of metal on my walks up and down Georgia Avenue:


I think it's a catalytic converter cover. It gives a musical chink-chink whenever a vehicle runs over it, as this Metro bus is about to do. IMG_5231_2.JPG I doubt it will ever be picked up by county street cleaners. Eventually it will become one with the asphalt, ground in so deeply that future generations, upon uncovering it buried under layers of our vanished world, will think it some 21st-century fossil and marvel at the invertebrate that could have created such an odd shell.

When you walk a lot you notice certain patterns, not just in traffic or the behavior of drivers, but in the detritus on the ground. I see a surprising number of these odd dental floss pick things:


I photographed that one on Capitol Hill, near the Library of Congress Madison Building, but I see them everywhere. It raises the question: Who picks his teeth while he's walking down the street? (I don't even bother asking why someone wouldn't put that in a trash can. Last night in Southwest I stepped over a used disposable diaper, all wrapped up like a parcel bomb.)

For me the discarded dental floss pick is brethren to the tennis shoes dangling from a telephone line: one of the mysteries of the modern age. Put on some walking shoes and explore them.

Have you encountered any mysteries? Photographed any assemblages of rubbish that rise nearly to the level of modern art? Share your thoughts in our Comments or e-mail me the results of your photo safari.

By John Kelly  |  December 2, 2008; 9:15 AM ET
 | Tags: trash, walking  
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Next: What If God Was One of Us? The Bus Wars Heat Up


John: I congratulate you on your pedestrianization.
Regarding Walt Whitman's inexpensive edition of Shakespeare mentioned in your article about the Folger Library in today's Post, Whitman never had enough money to afford anything else. Though Emerson hailed "Leaves of Grass" in its own time, it sold poorly. In one of his flashes of insight, Whitman thought Shakespeare's work a portrayal of the late feudal world in dissolution.
He did live in Washington for some years.

Posted by: cktirumalai | December 2, 2008 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Hey John,

Thats not a METROBUS in the picture you posted. Its a Monkey County Ride-On Bus. The give-away. . . . the Blue Stripe on the doors, the front & the right side panel, just aft of the front doors pictured.

Posted by: Robbnitafl | December 2, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

John, pedestrianization has become my life for the past 1 1/2 years. It's pretty amazing the things you notice in our exterior terrain when you do it on a daily basis. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: pl48106 | December 2, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

John: I too congratulate you on your pedestrianization! I have been in DC for ten years without a car. I sold it to finance my move here after college and have not missed a car one bit, except maybe when grocery shopping in the winter. One thing that strike me about walking in DC... people think I'm nuts because I walk so much. They look at me like I'm crazy for walking from Union Station to Dupont for work, or even shorter distances. Maybe that's why so many people are unhealthy, they never even consider walking. I do replace the soles of my shoes a lot, but it's worth it.

Posted by: brian37 | December 2, 2008 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Wow, good eye, Robbnitafl. You must be a bus-spotter. I was so focused on the ground I didn't see what was rolling on top of it.

@Brian37: I don't think I could last totally without a car in D.C.--or at least in my suburban lair. Not enough sidewalks and not bike-friendly enough. But I salute your commitment.

Posted by: JohnFKelly | December 2, 2008 7:28 PM | Report abuse

From Milwaukee: I don't own a car, so I walk and take the bus. I see dental sticks on the ground all the time too, never could figure that out. Though I do still see my share of single shoes littering the landscape.

Posted by: MILW | December 3, 2008 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Living in a small rural town (pop. 3200 or so), I walk to almost everywhere, with the sole exceptions of the grocery store and the firehouse (it's hard to run there in time to catch the engine on calls, especially while carrying your gear!). In fact, when my husband and I were looking for a permanent house, I insisted that it be in town where everything was accessible without having to drive. Also, I wanted to be in town so our kids would be able to walk to school and I wouldn't have to hear any Mom-I-missed-the-bus BS. My older daughter knows that there are only two times she gets driven to school: when one of us has such a bad cold that we can barely stand up, and during inclement weather (and I mean REALLY inclement weather!). In fact, she knows that rule so well that once when I suggested we drive because she was running late, I was the one who got blasted for saying that! Ever have a six-year-old tear you a new one? (Shoe, meet the other foot.) After growing up as a PG County street rat , not having to drive everywhere is quite refreshing.

Speaking of shoes, I haven't seen any on the roadsides around here in a while, but once in a while I do come across the occasional "Potomac River whitefish" and discarded plastic bottles (which find their way into our recycling bin at home). The third Monday of every month is street-sweeping day in town, and that always gives me some interest. Afterwards, you find those metal bristles from their brushes all over the place like glittery stems from some strange plant. I collect them when I can; my dad's spending his retirement as a blacksmith and knifemaker who does amazing things with those bristles. Tiny working knives, swords, little Ginsu knives, you name it, he can make it with them! (My sister is an artist who uses them as props for her sculpted critters on her website and her Etsy page.)

But the strangest thing I've seen on my walks to and from the school was the time I saw a jockstrap hanging from the wires near the high school. Whether it was fired up there by one of the guys, an angry sister, or a dumped/cheated-on girlfriend, I'll never know. All I know is that it rated about an 8 on my weird-stuff-o-meter.

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | December 3, 2008 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kelly:

Regarding your observation of shoes dangling from telephone wires, those usually have a nefarious meaning. It used to be an area nearby the hanging sneakers would probably be able to provide you with any number of drugs.

But now that we all know this, I don't know why the little hooligans keep tossing shoes over wires.

Posted by: BrendanWest | December 4, 2008 8:27 PM | Report abuse

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