Walking in Your Footsteps


This evening I was walking home from the subway station and noticed a salaryman in his late 50s standing precariously off to the side of the shotengai (shopping street). At first he appeared to be drunk, wobbling and red-faced, but as I got closer I could see that he was exhausted and leaning heavily on a shiny red metallic cane.

My heart was moved by the man’s vulnerable presence and for a moment I considered asking if he was okay. But then he resumed his walk: a slow, labored shuffle. Cane and left foot forward, pause, stiff right leg weakly pulled along. Stroke survivor perhaps?

The man’s lonely crawl was determined and somehow dignified. Had he come all the way from his workplace in this manner? No, I would not say anything. He deserved his privacy and was capable of walking without assistance. But – oh! He was not totally steady on his feet. So I resolved to shadow him all the way to his destination, following at a distance.

A few times in the past I have encountered an elderly person ascending stairs at a train station and felt compelled to slow to their pace. A few steps behind, I paralleled their awkward movement for a minute or two. This gave me a sense of what they were experiencing, at least outwardly. And my default hurry was dissolved. I had space to feel the physical action of each step, and to realize I am extremely lucky to be as agile as I am. Quite different from my usual aggressive attack on stairs and escalators during the daily commute.

In walking with another person, even if they aren’t aware of the company, there is a certain sense of holding, of beholding, of silently embracing the other. Isn’t it true that living some tiny fraction of time in another’s shoes can be just as empathic as a big show of support? And who can say whether this person even requires special treatment right now? “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” wrote Thoreau in Walden.

As my salaryman continued down the road, he was passed by pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional taxi. I kept 15 or 20 meters back, watching his progress but looking at my phone so as not to seem like a stalker. He shuffled past my building and the local convenience store.

I wondered about his inner experience of the journey. If he does this walk everyday, does he get impatient? Most days I rush the 800 meters from home to station, often running to catch a train leaving minutes later. What a different sense of time – or present – this guy must have.

Several blocks further, the man turned down a side street. I waited an appropriate length of time before following. Soon after, he turned again and paused. Was he opening a door here? No, this was an even narrower side alley he was shuffling down. Sounds of life emanated from the closely-packed houses: a television, a running shower, voices, clattering cans being taken out for recycling.

Another few narrow alleys and at last he stopped at a small two-story apartment building. A very old one with no entrance lobby, just doors directly accessed. His room was on the first floor, closest to the road. I stayed back and peeked occasionally as he stood before his door in the near dark. No overhead lights in the corridor. Perhaps he was getting his key. Should I use my iPhone flashlight to help? I waited.

Finally, I heard the sound of his key in the lock. But it was still several seconds before he got the door open. And then it was an effort to step up and into his room. After the door closed, I listened for the sound of the lock. Click. And then lights were turned on in the room. Apparently he lived alone.

I imagined him dropping onto a futon to rest before doing anything else. Would he have any energy to prepare something to eat? How long had he lived there? How far away was his office?

I turned and walked back to my place with a different perspective on the neighborhood.

© 2017 Patrick D. Mitchell