My Mind Within My Body, Moving Through Space
Seeing and being seen on the sidewalks of Minneapolis
“I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
On December 2nd, 2017, I was waiting to cross West Broadway, on the North Side of Minneapolis, when a woman passed me on the sidewalk. I didn’t hear everything she said, but it was something along the lines of: “Hey sexy, work that shit, I’d pick your ass up anytime.” She cruised past, not even breaking stride, and I was so stunned by her audacity that I could think of nothing to say. The light changed, and I crossed the street, bemused.
Now, I was waiting to cross West Broadway, on the North Side of Minneapolis, because, just over a year earlier, I had decided to walk the entire length of every street in the city. There were a number of reasons I chose to do this, perhaps the most noble of which was a sincere desire to get to know the place better. I had been living in the Twin Cities for about eight years, and yet there were large swathes where I had never set foot. And so, being a rather literal person, I concluded that the best way to remedy this situation was to systematically walk every single street in the city.
Personally, I was most excited about the prospect of watching the subtle variations of architecture and landscape across the city, but when I described my undertaking to more sociable people, they were more compelled by the possibilities for chance encounters. Surely, they said, I would have many interesting interactions with the citizens of Minneapolis, which might even reveal some greater truth about the population as a whole?
Instead, I discovered a profound sense of solitude at odds with the urban environment. Minneapolis is home to 422,331 people, and yet I would often walk for over an hour without passing another soul. It’s really not that surprising: as with most American cities, cars dominate. Still, the solitude I found more liberating than alienating. I became so confident in my aloneness that sometimes I would sing out loud to myself to pass the time — something I would be far too self-conscious to do if I thought I might be overheard.
Proof that I am not the only pedestrian in the city
(Footprints, Olson Memorial Highway)
When I wasn’t singing, I would allow myself to fall deep into my own thoughts. Each walk would generally last about sixty to ninety minutes, which is a luxurious amount of time to do nothing but think. Walking and thinking go very well together: movement through a shifting landscape provides a fitting backdrop for the progression of ideas, and thoughts tend to flow more freely from one to the other when they synch with to the pattern of footsteps. Sometimes, when I was lucky, this current lead somewhere interesting and novel, but for the most part it was fairly mundane. I dwelt on what had happened earlier that day and what had happened several months ago; made endless, baseless plans for the future; listed out worries and attempted to dispel them. There’s something deeply satisfying about spinning out an entire train of thought from start to finish, even if it’s only how to best spend your Wednesday evening.
Occasionally, my feet would lead me straight through deep thought and into a different state. I am not a spiritual person by any means, but on these solitary walks I encountered a sensation as close to meditation as I have ever achieved. My body would fall into the mindless rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, and my nagging internal monologue would cease. Consideration was replaced by observation: I saw, but I did not attempt to explain what I saw. I felt transparent, as if there were no barrier between my body and the space surrounding it. “Part or parcel of God,” as Emerson put it. It was always a profound but delicate experience, for as soon as I realized what had happened, I would awake from it.
Yet the irony of this meditative state does not escape me. It was a feeling of connection based on the perception that I was both invisible and alone, neither of which were true. I was never alone, never transparent, only ever unaware. How many eyes caught a fleeting glimpse of me through their living room window, or from the passenger seat of a moving car? My mere presence on the sidewalk was one factor (among many) in determining the behavior of the countless people who observed me over the months of my walking. Whether it was ever a meaningful effect or not, I cannot say. I can say that, whenever I saw another person coming towards me, I would stop singing. I wonder if someone ever saw me and stopped singing, too.
Proof that I am not, in fact, invisible
(Reflection, East 52nd Street)
It was much more comfortable to imagine being a floating eye-ball than a yet another body taking up space, and so I attempted to remain blissfully unaware as often as possible. But the outside world would, occasionally, interrupt my delusion. The woman who catcalled me, there on West Broadway, had the profound effect of reminding me not only of my presence, but of my privilege. For me, the encounter was funny because it was absurd: how often does a woman catcall a man? The roles were reversed, but the power dynamics were not, so rather than feeling threatened, I was able to laugh it off. The sad reality is, however, that if our genders were inverted — had I been a young woman, her an older man — I wouldn’t have laughed it off. Or maybe I would, not out of genuine amusement, but out of fear that the situation might escalate to something more sinister should I express anger. To add another dimension to the interaction, the woman who catcalled me was black, and I am white. West Broadway, and the North Side as a whole, are a largely black community. I imagine she felt comfortable enough to call out to me in part because she was on her home turf, and could tell that I wasn’t. Would she have done this if she were the one walking around an unfamiliar, white neighborhood, like Uptown or Linden Hills? It seems unlikely.
Perhaps this is redundant, but this entire undertaking of walking every street in the city was possible in large part to the privileges I enjoy as an able-bodied white male. I walked alone for miles through strange neighborhoods without a second thought. Only once was I catcalled, and not once did I find myself in a situation where I felt genuinely threatened. Certainly I was uncomfortable from time to time (I was always a little self-conscious on the North Side, where my whiteness was conspicuous), but there is a big difference between “uncomfortable” and “fearful.” Being a white man means that there is nothing daring or defiant about my project. I am merely following in the footsteps of all the other white men in this country, who have long enjoyed the privilege of going anywhere they please and feeling at home. Needless to say, this freedom has not been extended to everyone.
It struck me then, as I crossed West Broadway and continued walking northward, that those who are denied free movement suffer not only the inability to access certain spaces, but certain states of mind. If I were constantly on alert for possible threats to my personal safety, would I have been able to sink into a meditative state, a sense of profound connection? If I had grown up with the feeling that my body was somehow threatening, or alluring, or disgusting to others — an aberration rather than the norm — would I have been able to convince myself I was invisible, alone?
I can’t answer that question, of course, without being someone else. I am not someone else.
In the city, looking at the city
(The vista from Farview Park)
When I think about my walking, I often vacillate like this, between looking inwards and looking outwards. I think about my own mind, my mind within my body, my body moving through space, the space itself, the spaces beyond what I can see, the collective spirit connecting it all, including my mind, my body, my mind within my body. Like a lens slowly zooming out, except that if you zoom out far enough it just starts over.