Relationships Require a Sound Footing


I was attracted to Lois by walking behind her. I did not know her. I was walking down Madison on a day where the wind was off the river, driving thin cold rain before it. So my view was cast down towards the pavement to avoid puddles and to protect my face.

Her lower legs, knees down, stuck out below her tan raincoat. I first noticed her sneakers, colored Nikes over short white sox. In warmer times I might have followed those legs upward to, well, frankly, review the rest of her posterior. But between the rain and the obvious camouflage of outer clothing, I was not about to pick up my head that day just to be disappointed.

In my focus on Lois’ feet, I then noticed that when she stepped forward her left leg snapped out straight ahead of her, but her right leg did not. Her right leg came off the pavement and then, after suspending her foot for an instant, her knee would direct her foot outward away from her body and then, in a tight arc, quickly bring that foot back into the frame of her torso and plant if delicately and directly in front of her.

I slowed my pace, staying a few steps behind, enjoying the rhythmic, inefficient throw of her right foot, followed by its recovery of reason evidenced by that knee intelligently redirecting that foot to the straight and efficient path.

Then I blinked against an upward gust of wet wind, blinked again to clear my eyes, and when I looked up at the next corner realized that, somewhere in the last quarter-block, she was gone. I was looking at a pair of black leather boots over stocky female calves, a pair of muddied brown wing-tips sticking out of the cuffs of grey trousers, a small puddle collected in the modest depression between the level of the sidewalk and the slightly higher lip of the curb-stone.

That was during that Fall, and it started me on my practice of paying attention to how people handle their walking gait. Fascinating, in a low-key sort of way, I concluded. I mean, there are lots more interesting things than the way that random people happen to walk, not to mention the basic unimportance of the collected anecdotal data. Beyond a passing thought that some of these people must be wearing their shoes down pretty unevenly.

Not to be obsessive, but here let me just mention what I have learned. Most people just “walk.” Their feet go out straight in front of them. By walking behind them, you cannot tell if their feet are landing on the level or whether they are wearing down the left or right sides of their heels and soles, but to all appearances their walk is unremarkable.

Many other people, however, walk with personal quirks. I am not talking about the old or the impaired. I am talking about ordinary people, if you looked at them standing near to you your reaction would be, yeah, that’s a contemporary in age, style, earnings. Here are my categories of deviant walkers in that group; you may want to see if you also have noticed these types, at least on some level short of creating a formal taxonomy:

Some people, men and women both, throw out one foot to the side. A few throw out both feet, creating a sideways rocking gain unless the knees pull those feet frontward with alacrity. The throw often is subtle, but sometimes spectacular.

Some people walk straight, but land their feet splayed outward, a duck-like Charlie Chaplin-esque effect. For men, their trousers echo the splay with a flap of fabric.

Some are pigeon-toed, you expect them to end up crossing their legs inward and falling over themselves, face-down on the pavement.

Some women wear skirts with narrow clearance. They mince along, unable to stride out, often twisting a rear kick-pleat to the less vigorous side, disclosing too much of an unfortunate upper thigh. Others wear loose, soft-fabric skirts and take controlled steps, often holding one skirt-edge to guard against a gust lifting the skirt fabric and disclosing more private territory.

Then there are short-skirted women who stride out with flounce, treating the continuous flash of thigh as a fashion statement; these women always wear at least medium-height heels, or platform shoes, and seem to contemplate their total image, I suspect conscious of their walk and keeping it straight ahead and purposeful.

There are fat people whose body parts are rubbing when the walk, causing a slow gait with feet pointed outward to reduce friction, creating sideways list first to one side, then to the other. There are some deeply bow-legged people, I note anecdotally often Asian women bearing some strange genetic disposition, who carefully place each foot down within the frame of their bodies like a person placing a cane or crutch close enough to maintain balance and momentum.

There are those whose walk reveals their familiarity with different modes of locomotion or habitual contact with different surfaces. Dancers prance at irregular intervals. Runners break into jogs to reach crossings before the light changes. Ice skaters slide forward one foot and then the other, extending hands slightly in an echo of a balance, a hint of a crouch evident in their posture. Cross country skiers sweep each leg behind them.

Finally, some folks are just plain uncoordinated. They are the children of Boris Karloff, jerkily lurching down the even cement as if stepping barefoot on a carpet of angry scorpions. One suspects some none-too-subtle neurological complication.

One beautiful day that following May, I was again walking down Madison on my way to work and, although the weather did not compel my looking downward, I had by now gotten in the practice of looking downward anyway, at least some of the time – it’s sort of like my little hobby, I guess.

So—here I am, picture this if you would – strolling down Madison and I see those colored Nikes again, same type of short sox, and that tell-tale outward throw of foot on the right –leg step, snapped promptly back in line. I notice now the legs which are delivering this familiar pattern; they are thin but well-proportioned, they disappear behind a skirt a little above the knee disclosing no hint of cellulite but, rather, exuding a nice pinkish glow, none of that upsetting super-whiteness that looks like a slab of chilled sturgeon, with a sharp indent just over the top of the sox that promises a deep hollow on each side of the now-invisible heel.

We arrive at the corner together. I know this person, she is my – friend. I feel like I have met her before, a feeling which is no doubt unfounded and delusional but true. Reflexively I turn to her, finding a squared profile with severe chin and straight sloping nose set off by blonde bangs and a sweep of hair into which her ears slowly disappear.

“Great to see you again,” I say. “How has your Spring been going.”

Lois turned to me with a half-smile of collegial puzzlement. “Hello. I must say I am not sure I can recall….”

The pause becomes evident and I realize I am in embarrassing difficulty here. A very limited number of possible replies suggest themselves and are dismissed; outright lie (“Wasn’t it at the gallery opening, you know…”) to the absurd truth (“I loved your walk with the thrown out right foot from the moment I first saw you last Fall and when I just got a glimpse of your calves that clinched it for me and I just had to talk with you”).

“I can’t tell you. I’m embarrassed to tell you.”

The light changed but she did not move. I stood there also. Her grin morphed into a wide smile.

“You must be kidding me, right? Is this a – pick up line? That would be – disappointing…”

“Sort of. But I do know you. In a way. It will take some – explanation?”

“I’ll bet,” she said, making a show of looking at her watch.

“I’m not a creep,” I blurted, realizing that in a way I was now in fact lying. “ Here is my business card,” I said as I frantically fished for one in my wallet. “I’m a real person!” (Well, that was sort of stupid; even Stalin and Caligula were real persons but, likely, not the best of personal companions.)   “May I call you?”

A big smile now. “Won’t that be a little hard since I have your card but you do not know who I am?”

Moron. I am sure I am a moron. I am sure she knows I am a moron.

“I will call you. On the phone, you can explain all about this.” Stern tone now: “If you are one of those stalkers I assure you I will have your ass, even in your Zegna suit.”

My spirits soar. She will call me! She noticed my suit, I am so glad I wore a nice suit!

The light changed again and I just stood there as she began to cross. I was about to call after her that I was not a stalker, but caught myself that this was not a great thing to yell out while surrounded by lots of strangers.

Later, much later, Lois told me that she was particularly attracted to my compulsion to describe her body in great detail. It proved to be, for her, a form of flattery, that her feet and legs and arms and fingers and hairline could prove so fascinating to another human being. Of course, she told me with salacious leer, that it was also a little creepy, she could better appreciate my affinity for parts of her body other than feet. Her biggest fear to overcome was that I was so guilelessly candid in my admissions, and so skilled in observation, that she worried my curious little predilection was dangerous to the safety of others.

I have found that Lois likes to come back to this theme primarily when we are naked. That’s okay with me. Our only ground-rule is that we do not mention any of this to the kids.

Oh, yes. Good stories have a moral at the end. Here is the moral of this story: “Honesty is the best policy.”