I love a public road: few sights there are
That please me more – such object has had power
O’er my imagination since the dawn
Of childhood, when its disappearing line
Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep
Beyond the limits which my feet had trod,
Was like a guide into eternity,
At least to things unknown and without bound.
The snow is falling. Ice has formed on the sidewalks and walking is becoming, if not impossible, at least treacherous. My 4 km path from home to office has been transformed into an obstacle course. Not so much harder, I guess, than some of the summer’s more difficult wanderings, but requiring much sturdier dress. And even in its warmth, the city was harsher than Norway and Scotland’s hedgerows and mountain trails. There are no wild flowers along the way, no trout rising in any stream through Verdun, no herons kicking into the air to greet my passing. Now there are gusts of needle-sharp air around the frozen concrete corners of walk-ups. There is the way the wind plays a winter song on the wires, calling the pigeons out to find the bread crumbs someone left on the snow. And there is N-, the homeless man on the bench he stubbornly, nonsensically prefers to a warm bed, his nose dripping even as he speaks to me in the most reasonable, cultured, and educated of tones about his degree in English literature. “I can’t leave,” he tells me, “they asked me to be here in this place when they come, which should be any day now.” He shifts his legs and adjusts the plastic bags around him. I look at his boots. Such is mental illness. But then, it was a kind of rootlessness I aspired to not many months ago. I buy him snow pants and worry about him on nights like last night, when it drops to 28 below. I think of my sons and know he is someone’s. Calling the police is an option.
There is garbage in the gutter, the smell of oil and tomato sauce unexpectedly tinging the vacuum of air behind the pizzeria, the hiss of the plastic Frosty the Snowman who lifts out of his inner tube once every thirty seconds as the air pump builds him again and again to greet a street that is empty except for me. Later a car rolls slowly by, a foreign creature, windows shadowed, the sound of its tires compressing the snow loud in my ears, muffled bass beating like a heart buried deep within.
Peregrination seems far away from this winter world. Against the cold and dark of the city, life has settled into whatever warm niches it can find, leaving little above the surface. But there is life nevertheless. Different eyes are needed for walking this way, different rhythms to keep from falling on this pilgrim route. There is a different loneliness and a different cost. In my doorway I take off my gloves and the back of my hands is red and raw, the skin threatening to break open from dryness. The only hand cream I can find stings.