The winter sun is warm, not hot yet in Phoenix’s desert climate. It evokes a first sigh of pleasure, joined momentarily as my legs start flexing and stretching. Blood starts pumping through my circuits like electricity restored after a blowout. Moderate rush-hour traffic cruising along 13th Street beside my apartment complex reminds me of the time of day but doesn’t molest my mental peace as I plug my earphones in and press play of a “Fresh Air” podcast. One, perhaps two, bicyclists kklickkk past. Their Arizona State University backpacks indicate their status.
I purposefully work my legs, turning from the section of Judd Street that runs through the complex, then briefly onto 13th Street before opting for the reconnection of Judd Street. If one were watching my journey from a bird’s perspective, it wouldn’t look different from a meandering zigzag. BMWs and Audis, nor newer model Cadillacs and decked out Hummers are found among the street parking. These houses don’t have expensive lawn furniture outside; they rarely have outdoor decor at all, actually. A sticker on a Westfalia van reads “Who are the Grateful Dead, and why are they following me?”
A man in a jumped up American truck passes after halting at a stop sign. The burr cut, the white skin, blonde hair, and militant face give me pause, make me wonder if there’s a shotgun in his cab, something not uncommon in a state where denizens are allowed to carry guns in public (but not in bars).
Near the stop sign where he paused is an artful form of infrastructure. These appear especially on the sidestreets of this neighborhood. Each of the dozen or so I’ve seen is unique, as if part of the street’s identity. Their purpose has evaded me, though my friend tells me they’re outdated and no longer used for whatever their original purpose was. Some are square, some like round chimneys. They’re painted or sculpted. They’re amateur but never pretentious.
Something similar are the sculptures that adorn the narrow roundabouts. These also appear to have been built by the residents. As an infrastructural element they gently bring attention to the roundabouts, which Americans simply don’t understand. They’re also public art. Their homegrown feel lends far more appeal than some public art I’ve seen in China or Sarasota. At each roundabout I stop and take a closer look, enjoy their whimsy, their light-heartedness.
Occasional glimpses inside the houses’ windows shows a lack of art, reveals floor plans that don’t aren’t open or spacious. Some landscaping is pristine. It looks like a point of pride for some homeowners. No garage is open. Front doors rarely present greeting mats or decorations. They are not open and do not bear screen or glass doors. Yet in no way would I say the air is one of hostility or fear. It seems to be an end to a means. People go to work, they go elsewhere, then they return to their homes later at night, looking forward to their beds.
Toward the end of the half-mile-long street two people are walking. I keep an eye on them. Are they actually out for a delightful stroll like me? But then, no, like the other walkers occasionally spotted in our neighborhood, they are on a mission. They appear to have left a house to get in a car and drive elsewhere.
Seconds later we’ve passed each other silently. They get into their car and drive off. The memory of them falls behind like footsteps at the shore. Filling that space instead is a giggle.
I can’t really be seeing this. The sun creeps below the rooflines, and shadows grow taller than the single-story 1950s block houses lining most of the streets, sometimes marring my sight. Well, it’s nothing new to see a black and white cat standing regally in his front yard. But the rotund little cow seems to have…a length of thin rope connecting his collar to the chain-link fence enveloping his throne. His stillness– no, his statuesque serenity, the very fact he barely blinks when my tennies halt before his house– seems to void the need for the leash. He couldn’t care less than I’m walking by. Unlike the people I saw on my first walk, this cat barely recognizes my presence. Far be it from him to stare at me, let alone run in the opposite direction.
A giggle escapes my throat as I turn on my little red camera and take a snap.
“Watching over your dominion?” I chuckle before continuing on my way. Momentarily the air fills with sweet scents of local flora. I don’t know what bushes or trees or flowers filled my olfactory sense. Its sweetness echoed that of jasmine. It became stronger as I approached a quaint old house on another corner. Here a boxy white house bore an equally boxy air conditioning unit atop the roof. Suddenly my mind went on a different journey, back in time along the home’s journey. There was construction sometime in the 1950s. Twenty-some years later, when air conditioning became common, the house cooled itself against the average summer temperatures of 100-plus degrees. Sitting quietly on that corner, I wondered about the original owner, thought that the perfect visual complement would be an octogenarian owner, enjoying the newspaper from a wrought iron rocker on the front porch. The For Sale sign before the house makes me wonder if that potential memory is already in the past. Who knows how many reincarnations the house has seen over its life?
A skateboarder’s ca-zzushhh breaks the quiet air and wiggles its way past my earphones and into my ears. It’s been several minutes since I’ve seen any other sign of movement, other than an occasional car passing. Where are the homeowners come home at the end of the workday? Where are the retirees who might be enjoying a tea on their front porches? Where are the children? The void of people makes me feel like I’m walking through a ghost town until I turn a corner where a church hides the park behind it. There a smile lifts my face as I see parents playing with their children, dog owners treating their “kids” with some fetch and the ability to frolic with other four-legged fellas. A couple of older people sit together languidly on a green, wood park bench.
My mind flips back its mental files to an earlier walk. On that walk too I found people enjoying their neighborhood park, that time with a barbecue and some frisbee. It’s this skateboarding and bicycling, and outdoor activity at the park and at South Mountain (the largest city park in the country, if not the world, and part of a local mountain preserve system) that keeps most of the locals so thin. I’m reminded that all this thinness came as a surprise when I’d landed here from Ohio a month ago. Suffice it to say that in Ohio, volume was the surprising element. The reality reminded me of Phoenix’s proximity to California, where the waif is the norm. Most people here in the Phoenix Valley aren’t waifs, but they’re getting their exercise somehow.
Located just a few miles from the apartment where I’m temporarily residing, South Mountain’s parking lots fill almost to overflowing with truck after truck and SUV after SUV. A runner friend took me there a few weeks ago for some exercise. Finding my own spot to rest after a walk in the roasted river bed was a cinch, though. Mountain bikers were plentiful as jock straps in a locker room. Running teams and individuals were abundant as stars in Arizon’s clear skies. Families enjoyed walks together. I even overheard a couple on their first date there. Evidently this is the way of outdoors exercise. A neighborhood walk is just so…trite.
For me, though, a neighborhood stroll makes one of the best possible means of familiarizing yourself with the locale. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Peru or India, mainland China or Hong Kong. It cleans out the cerebral cob webs but relaxes the muddled mind. It stimulates the blood but calms the heart.
What would revered 19th-century British essayist Robert Louis Stevenson say on this?
“It seems as if a hot walk purged you, more than of anything else, of all narrowness and pride, and left curiosity to play its part freely, as in a child or a man of science. You lay aside all your own hobbies, to watch provincial humours develop themselves before you, now as a laughable farce, and now grave and beautiful like an old tale.”
Indeed, on the final stretch back to my friend’s apartment, I feel humored and beautiful, curious and purged. I see a blonde, middle-aged woman walking toward me on the sidewalk. There is no purse on her shoulder, no pet leash stretching before her, no keys to a nearby car dangling from her hand. There is a peace to her face. She approaches and we look at each other. We smile, and I’m happy that someone else can enjoy a neighborhood stroll.