For twenty-one years I walked the same beat on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – from my apt on West 86th Street to my office on West 64th. I have lived in the same apartment for thirty-two years and have worked in the same office for twenty-one. I am a person who likes security and whose roots run deep.
Many days I walked both ways, and virtually all at least one. I walked in the blustery cold days of winter and the blistering hot days of summer. Time constraints might have forced me to other forms of transportation, but the weather did not. I told myself that if I let the weather dictate, then surely I would give up walking altogether. Spring and Fall last mere days in the city, and the rest are either too hot, too cold, or too something. The weather is like all things in New York City – demanding and inconvenient. Instead I slavishly checked the weather reports and donned or removed layers of clothing and footwear, as appropriate.
In the early years, I would wear comfortable shoes or sneakers to walk in and carry my professional-looking pumps in my bag. In the middle years, I would keep an array of footwear in my office so I wouldn’t have to carry shoes each day. In more recent years, the shoes gathered dust under my desk, as I would change into them only if I had a meeting that required the professional costume.
I walked as a single woman and then with a boyfriend who became my fiancé and later my husband, and whom, in the year before our marriage moved in with me and took a job three blocks away from mine. I walked while pregnant and after miscarriages and post-partum. Most recently, I walked through a herniated disk, when I could hardly walk at all.
The early years took me up and down Broadway, but when my daughter was in our local elementary school, I expanded my territory to include some of the other avenues that line the city North to South.
Growing up, my father owned a Buster Brown shoe store in Brooklyn. As the daughter of a retailer, I know the health of the nation’s economy can be measured by the number of empty storefronts in my neighborhood. While my daughter was at P.S. 166, I could have told you the stores that lined Broadway and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. For every empty storefront, I could also have told you what used to be there, sometimes through multiple changeovers.
A minute a block was my twenty-minute hedge against whatever awaited me at home or at work – depending on the direction I was headed. And, when I walked with my husband, typically in the mornings to drop our daughter off at school, it became our time to share as a couple. During those years, we were too tired to share much of anything in the evenings except chores and grumbling. The morning was quality time for us, when we were both awake and not yet derailed by everything else that would follow. Yet, even then, I coveted my walks alone.
Everything changed twelve days ago when I got laid off from work. My suspicions turned to certainty a few weeks before I was actually told. After more than two decades at the place, I knew roughly when and how it would happen. Previously, when I thought about leaving my job, it was always as something abstract. Suddenly, I needed to think about it as something real and imminent.
I started packing. I packed up my thick folders of health insurance forms and correspondence with the Committee on Special Education for my son. I packed up my drawer of gym clothes. I packed up the family photos, including favorites of my daughter on the rope spider web at the Central Park Zoo, and my son covered in blue face paint — both children looking straight at the camera and smiling their brightest.
And of course, I packed up the shoes — eight pair in all, including a pair of black leather stiletto pumps that turned any outfit, from jeans to the most conservative dress, into an adventure.
When we walk, we look forward not back. And so it was that on the day I was laid off, I packed up my day planner and my Rolodex, said a few goodbyes and walked on home.
Since then, I have walked all over. In the morning, I still walk my husband to work, but now I leave him and go to the gym across the street. After that, my day is my own as I think about my next steps both big and small, both literal and figurative. I am no longer walking the same beat and it feels good. My new life has taken me downtown to the West Village and Chelsea to my son’s school and some business meetings, uptown to a friend’s Pilates class and cross-town to my daughter’s school. I am thinking about the brilliant acupuncturist I met when I hurt my back this summer and how nice it would be to walk through Chinatown this time of year – far less pungent than in July but without the stands selling the dragon fruit I like so much.
In the coming weeks, I expect to be out of familiar neighborhoods and routines even more. The world got a lot bigger when I lost my job; luckily my hometown is still small enough for me to walk it end to end.
Paula Katz is a recovering lawyer. She lives on the upper west side with her husband Rick Mandler, their two children and dog Dreamer.