It has been suggested more than once that I have some type of problem.
''If you're consciously choosing to do something to the obvious exclusion of your own personal safety, then something's clearly wrong. You need to go to meetings where people sit on folding chairs. Take a friggin' cab!'' commanded a concerned friend through my cell phone as I strolled down a dodgy D.C. street, the sun setting on my back. Me not giving a damn about maybe getting mugged for the third time or fainting for the second.
That's my issue: I walk too much.
In the face of my driver's license deficiency and a gradual abhorrence for the close body contact prevalent on most subway systems, I've learned through pluck and circumstance to use the legs God gave me. People, I've walked across state lines—multiple times—without getting winded or wreathed. Never thinking twice about the damage being caused to the thinning skin above my smallest three toes until it was too late, I average 5, maybe even six miles a day without even trying. Pedometers are for pussies.
Like all my potentially damning idiosyncrasies walking is a product of my childhood and therefore can easily be blamed on my mother. Forcing me to ''go outside and play,'' Frances inadvertently created a pedestrian. On Catalina Island, being an only child with tons of friends but fewer equals, spending time alone was habitual and safe.
Besides, the more time I spent with myself, the more I liked it—or me, rather. Imaginary friends: Who needs 'em? Plus, there was a lot of stuff on my mind, stuff I would've never known about if me, myself, and I, hadn't begun our long jaunts across the beach, our hikes up beer-bottled hills and our parades downtown. Like the fact that Justin Ramirez could scarcely contain his passion for me, which is why he'd ignored me during The Pirates of Penzance rehearsal. And Amy Dugger's dad hadn't ''forgotten'' to pick me up for the camping trip on the Isthmus. And getting traded in the middle of the Little League season was not, as Frances would have me believe, the price of being too talented.
After graduating from college in New York—the official HQ for those on foot—I got an internship at O, the Oprah Magazine that paid $5 and some change an hour. Our offices were on 53rd on the West Side, and I lived on East 128th Street. Making minimum wage also meant choosing between a monthly metro card and regular sustenance. Seeing as how I'd never get ahead with a loud stomach—So, Helena, do you think you can fact-check October's contributors' page? GROWL!—I chose the latter. What's a 75-block trek twice a day among professionals?
In Washington three years later, I'd tell people this story as proof of payment for all these alleged ''dues'' people talk about. ''Every fucking day, each way. One time in the rain with high-heeled boots and a $2 umbrella.''
By then I had a master's degree and a metro card in a city with decent public transportation. Neither new development—supposed intelligence or cheap rides—stopped me from walking home after my shift at the New York Times' Washington bureau ended around midnight. People who have ''shifts'' should probably get to take breaks. But it seems that people who have degrees and shifts do not. Gallivanting around town on foot and after the freaks come out was my idea of a good break.
You know that feeling you get when someone is staring at you from behind? Evidence that there exists some type of spiritual kinetic energy between all human beings that we're just too primitive to tap into and use to stir coffee with our minds? About two seconds after avoiding whatever situation happens after dark between two men and a woman on a silent street, that feeling hit me like a fist to the face. Thankfully, these two teenagers didn't use anything that dramatic.
''What the fuck?'' They were on me in an instant, the tall one tugging on my purse before I had a chance to process the idea of being robbed. It was ridiculous. Who makes a decent living wage pick-pocketing besides 19th-century British foundlings? Clearly this was not a mugging but this kid's scary attempt at flirting. Sorry, homie, but I'm grown. Move along, please, I've got z's to catch.
''Gimme the bag,'' he said, the size of his eyes conveying his seriousness. His rapping partner closed in on the left side, and I was boxed out with basketball camp for inner city youth efficiency.
''No!'' Now see, this objection flew from my lips totally without my knowledge. In fact, none of my subsequent actions were pre-approved—yanking my purse strap back onto my shoulder, parking my free hand onto my hip, and assuming what can only be described as a ninja stance. Despite being well aware of the fact that my life was worth more than a XOXO bag circa 1999, I literally couldn't help myself.
''Give. Me. The. Bag.'' I finally let go with all the petulance of a pre-schooler just learning to share. Fine then! Here. The shorter one, feeling neglected, kept himself busy with my pockets, padding them down and asking three times for ''the cash.'' ''Where's the cash? Is there cash?''
Then it was over. With my ''leather'' purse in hand and a fist full of lint, these two 16-year-old scalawags took off in the opposite direction like they stole something. With that simile forever ruined, I felt more disappointed than debased. That was it? Without a phone with which to call the authorities or my mother, I decided walking another block and a half to the metro wouldn't be tempting fate. Plus, it's not like I had anything left to lose. On the ride down the escalator, I kept looking around to see if people were staring—if I looked like someone who'd just been robbed by children.
I burst into tears only after asking the two officials behind the bulletproof glass if I could please use their official MTA telephone to call the police. One of the station agents, an older black man in a uniform hat, looked me in the eye and asked, ''Oh, sweetheart, what's wrong?'' It's a surprise they understood anything through all the stuttering and snot. ''Someone-heehuh-just-heehuh-stole-heehuh-my-heehuh-purse-heehuh.''
For a while after that—plus a second mugging (this time he just snatched my purse and ran), and a fainting incident at Duccini's due to dehydration—I was good. I took the metro to and from work, stayed hydrated, carried my pepper spray with the safety off, and ordered my pizza in. Really, I was just too embarrassed to show my face around town, seeing as how it had played me so tough. I'd been held up by teenagers, made bruised and bagless by another kid, and then collapsed in front of strangers and to-go boxes.
Perhaps I should lay off the walking for a while, I thought, if only to trick Washington into believing I was gone. Then maybe whatever hoodoo had been placed on my hobby might get lifted—hopefully in time for the cherry blossoms.
I eased back on to the street, hopping off the train a few stations before I was supposed to or catching the bus a few blocks away. Duccini's was my last stop. It'd been a while, so I had a speech prepared. It began, ''So, it turns out I'm deranged.'' Fortunately, I didn't need it. The African guy spotted me mumbling to myself outside and was shouting by the time I got my foot in the door, ''Hey! My friend. I was worried about you.''