Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Sometimes, just to remind myself that it's possible, I run neighborhood errands on foot. I don't have any illusions that this is sufficient exercise to get me into shape. As a person who drives nearly 400 miles each week, I also don't have any illusions that this makes me earth-friendly. I just do it to remind myself that not every little errand requires a car.

When I was a kid, my aunt, who lived next door to us, used to go "down street" every day. She was usually out the door well before 8 AM, after getting my uncle off to work and the kids fed and dressed before school. When she had kids in the house who were too little to go to school, or when it was a weekend or school break, she'd take the kids with her. Later in her life, when her oldest, married daughter moved back into the neighborhood, my aunt often had a grandchild or two in tow on each morning trip. She did most of her shopping that way, picking up fresh bread, meat, and vegetables from local businesses. Despite giving birth to five children, cooking elaborate meals for her family, and having a taste for TV soap operas, she was always slim as a pin.

It's important to understand that this isn't one of those "we hauled water from the well and scrubbed clothes on the washboard" stories. Maybe my parents, aunts, and uncles had to do some of those things during their own childhoods, but I didn't become sentient until the early 1960s. Our neighborhood was distinctly working-class -- no one there was even remotely wealthy -- but just about every family had a car, and used it for major shopping trips to supermarkets. Most families owned a washing machine and some electric kitchen appliances. Everyone had a television set, and despite the availability of only four or five channels, everyone watched TV every day. But neighborhood moms still went "down street", usually on foot, to pick out the freshest foods and the best bargains, and just to get out of the house and meet up with the neighbors.

You can't do that much now. There happens to be a strip mall at the end of my street, and some of the businesses there are local. So, it's easy enough for me to pick up a bottle of vitamins and a loaf of my favorite struan bread on foot, packing away my purchases in a cloth tote bag. But, to get to the bank across the next street, I have to cross an intersection that probably processes 100 cars each minute. The crossing button at the most convenient leg of the intersection doesn't work. The rare pedestrian must wait on a sidewalk-free mud mound while teenage boys honk and hoot from trucks and SUVs. Today I gave up and jaywalked a few hundred feet past the intersection. At least I could see, from that vantage point, whether any cars were coming.

Not too many people go down street any more. The traffic is too thick, the exhaust fumes too varied, and the stores too far away. I can buy some of the things that we need at the nearby strip mall, but a trip to the supermarket that would require only fifteen or twenty minutes of walking would also require ten or fifteen of waiting at lights. Truck emissions gas you at every turn. And, morning, noon, or night, the cars just don't stop.

My aunt? She'll be 94 in May. Did it have anything to do with the walking? I dunno. I'll keep trying to increase my own walking habit -- maybe you can ask me in another 47 years.


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