I'm not sure when I became a fast walker. Perhaps I picked up the habit around the time I started at NYU. Becoming a “Real New Yorker” had been my goal since my early teens, when I first began plotting my escape from my rural hometown in northern New Jersey. Life was too slow back home, and walking like a native New Yorker—briskly, with confidence—was something I was going to have to do if I was going to fit in. Perhaps I was like those people who hide their accents when they move to the city. I didn’t want my stride to reveal my small-town roots.
Occasionally, when I needed to squeeze by someone who slowed me down, I took on that other New Yorker trait, the one where I say, "Excuse me," but it comes out closer to Dustin Hoffman’s famous line in Midnight Cowboy: "I'm walkin' here!"
I was part of the fast and furious. I'd dip into the street to avoid a planted tree, then step back up onto the sidewalk to take the lead ahead of the texting-while-walking human Roombas and those just plodding along. It wasn't just about getting around. It was a race. If Google Maps, under the watchful eye of its GPS satellite up above the stratosphere, estimated that my pulsating blue circle would reach my destination in 11 minutes, I'd text my friend to say, "See you in seven!"
It became part of my bedtime ritual to peek at my iPhone’s Health app to see how much ground I’d covered that day. I’d gaze at the app’s orange bar graph—like Narcissus staring at his reflection—that displayed the total mileage for my day, week, month, and year. I was averaging 4 miles a day. On busier days that included a run and a trip to one of my kids' schools, I’d find the lines on the graph nudging beyond 8 miles. And while I hadn’t yet traded in my analog Swatch for an Apple Watch, my morning runs were accompanied by the halting robotic voice in the Map My Run app, which I kept on my phone to measure my speed and distance. Occasionally I forgot that the app was in workout mode, and the voice would startle me, jolting me out of whatever runner’s daydream I was having.
And then it all came crashing to a halt. I was in my bedroom putting on my workout gear and sneakers, dressing for a run that never happened. I've birthed three humans, all with varying degrees of pain management with epidurals, so when I suddenly felt stabbing pains in my abdomen, I knew I was in trouble. On a scale of 1 through 10—with 10 being the most severe pain I’ve ever felt—I was at 12. I hobbled into the emergency room a few blocks from my Brooklyn home (lucky geography there). An ambulance took me to a Manhattan hospital where I would be fed a narrative I wanted to believe: food poisoning.
They jacked me up with morphine and sent me home. I had tickets to see the National that night, and for a few hours, missing that concert seemed like the worst part of my day. But overnight, I grew delirious with pain. By 3 the following afternoon, I crawled—no hyperbole here, crawled—into the Lyft that took me back to the ER. By then, I had an out-of-control infection in my abdomen. I was dying. The doctors rushed me into emergency surgery. The following weeks were a nightmare of multiple hospital stays and complications, but I knew I was one of the lucky ones. Humbled by every aspect of my near-death experience, I was grateful that I kept all my organs, that I never went into shock, and that I was going to make a full recovery.
Time expanded. I had walked into the hospital on the last summerlike day in late September; when I emerged from the ordeal, I found myself taking my first real steps outside amongst the gold and red leaves of a late fall afternoon. Though I could walk, I was healing from surgery and was not allowed to bend over to pet my cat or pick up a dropped iPhone. The physical therapist at the hospital suggested I order a heavy-duty long-handled grabber from Amazon. Soon the website's targeted advertising algorithm tried to sell me a cane and walker too. I was in my 40s, but I moved with all the agility of someone twice my age. I had also lost 30 pounds I didn't need to lose, and I felt weak because of it. In those first weeks, I wasn’t walking enough to nudge the bar graph in the Health app up anywhere close to a mile. My hard-earned, brisk New York stride was downgraded to a carefully choreographed shuffle. Slow was the word of the day, every day.
An early attempt to use the subway was as harrowing as it was reckless. While I made sure to make the trip before rush hour, I had forgotten how much New Yorkers jostled and nudged each other. I should have known better, as I still required the help of visiting nurses. After that subway experiment, my physical therapist restricted me to cabs. It wasn’t until February when I was cleared to take the F train from Brooklyn to Grand Central, that glorious shrine to quick-footed commuters.
I climbed up from the bowels of the city and stepped onto the busy sidewalk. Presurgery, my gamer’s approach to moving through Manhattan was all about anticipating openings—slipping past the groups of men in Patagonia vests walking three abreast, cutting in front of iPhone addicts, scooting around the double-wide strollers, going for shortcuts and cheats. It gave way to a different sort of game. Will I make it across the street before the light changes? Sometimes I didn’t. I was, as I soon discovered, in another dimension.
Slow-walking through midtown, one enters the realm where people fly by like agents from The Matrix. I walked with the elderly, the injured, the disabled. You end up with those who share your pace. There was a nod from a well-dressed elderly gentleman, offering me a look that said, “Would you look at these maniacs?” I was in awe of the blind as they traversed the city with their service dogs. How did they do it? I noticed the home care workers out for a stroll, pushing the wheelchairs of those in their charge. How could I complain about being slow when I was blessed enough to walk? Occasionally I saw people like me: too young to be walking so slowly.
I adapted to the rules of this new reality. I would check the Google Maps walking estimate and then double it, still often arriving late. I also became thankful that I never got around to upgrading to an Apple Watch. If I had been wearing one, it would have provided another metric for me to read and to self-judge, another way to fail.
As I shuffled along, those around me would sigh with annoyance or bark their own versions of the New Yorker’s Excuse me. I was at that moment stuck in my version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. But there was no ghost to show me around. He wasn't necessary. I saw how I used to be. I felt shame, but also, as I puttered along, I had a chance to look around.
I peered up at the hood-ornament-like gargoyles on the Chrysler Building. When was the last time I noticed them? I spied an octogenarian couple walking hand in hand. Would I find someone to slow-walk with me? Those who marched with me at our careful gait knew the secrets of this slower town. We saw things. We were witnesses to the everyday interactions others missed. I studied shop windows like some character from an old movie. I filled my Instagram feed with photos of trees, birds, and reflections on rain-covered streets—things only a slow-walker would notice.
I sought forgiveness for my old self. I wanted to ask those others doing the slow electric slide through midtown to come closer. Come here, slow-walkers, and walk with me. What exactly was my hurry? This town I dreamed about and now lived in, why the haste to rush across it?
By early April, my step quickened. I was even running again, though I stopped using a tracking app, as I no longer cared about my pace. I still checked in on that bar graph inside the Health app. I did this half out of habit and half because I needed to gage my progress (or so I told myself). I watched the bar climb back up to multiple miles, each day taller than the one before, empirical evidence that I was getting back to my old self. Here’s the thing with all that data: In the months leading up to my health scare, Map My Run recorded a steady decline in my running time. My pace consistently slowed by over a minute. Did I head to the doctor to find out the reason why? No. I added mileage instead. I can’t help but think that if I heeded the warning of those sluggish runs, perhaps I could have averted my health debacle.
On a gorgeous day last spring, I came up from the subway at Bryant Park. There in front of me once again was that ubiquitous human gridlock. I was in a hurry, and the claustrophobic crush of people standing on the stairs made me slip back into my commuter default mode. And then those words escaped like an ancient curse: Excuse me. I caught myself, lowering my head and hoping to hide the fact that it had been I who uttered them.
Even now that I’m healthy enough to soundly beat those Google Maps walking predictions again, I sometimes decelerate my pace on purpose while I’m walking. I’ll look around, be present, notice things. And when I feel the urge to breeze by someone, I stop myself, knowing the truth I should have known all along, something I didn’t need an app to tell me: They walk slow because they cannot walk fast.