I first discovered this walk early one summer afternoon after lunch with a friend at a taqueria just south of Washington on 9th street. My toenails were freshly painted, and I was wearing a pretty little summer dress with polka dots and a white lace fringe. With the high sun and the clear blue sky, it felt the most perfect day for a walk, as though this day had been born solely for sojourning through, and though I was supposed to have been in a different city that afternoon, I was now immensely glad for circumstance to have had me stay behind.
However, after having walked this route again several times and at varied times of the day, I believe this walk is really best in the evening, in that time of day long after the sun has set but not yet purely night. When the stores have just closed and people are at home reading in a chair or tucking into bed, this is the quietest part of the city, I think, save for the occasional people walking their dogs, a couple of students haphazardly dragging out their trash, a smattering of grim-faced runners.
The roadside trees are friendly — if occasionally startling in their tendency to snap you unexpectedly in the face with low-hanging branches. The electric candlesticks that frequent the front windows of the townhouses chortle quietly to themselves as you extract yourself yet again from a cluster of fronds.
And, in the fall, the sidewalk is overlaid by a slick sunflower covering of fallen fruit and leaves, which in the right situation can be terribly romantic, but in the wrong one terribly dangerous. Autumn leaves are very slippery. That is all I will say about that.
The only consistent sounds each walk and night are my breath and the whisper of my steps over the sidewalk brickwork, sounds engaged in polite banter with each other where words have long retired to my head. Sure, there are occasional cars and sometimes rain, which patters sloppily on the street and, if it comes with wind, kicks up quite the tantrum.
But on a typical night, noise extraneous to oneself is so limited that after 15 minutes, even the soft glow of the streetlamps starts to feel loud. The only lights not so intrusive are those in the sky, and, on the clearest nights, one comes to discover new meaning in calling one’s circle of friends glittering: the stars lining the way on a cloudless night are truly spectacular, hundreds of friends winking from a million light years away because they know what you did three years from now.
On nights like this I find myself alternating between watching the stars and watching the sidewalk so I don’t stumble over a protruding brick or slam into a doorstep. The density of Philadelphia’s city lights drowns out all but a scant twinkling of the loudest talkers, and perhaps it is the stars’ scarcity that heightens their seduction; still, these are sufficient company, and though these sky-bound friends have likely been dead for several millennia on an otherwise silent night, I am glad to welcome them to the conversation.
It is the deep solitude of this walk I crave. It might seem strange to seek this aloneness outside, in a city, especially as I already live by myself. But I think, for me, it is the combination of a quiet street with the meditative exercise of walking that seals the spell of this place; here I am completely unencumbered, with nothing to pursue except the call of locomotion. No emails to send, no essays to write, no people to telephone, no clothes to launder. Nothing that can be achieved in that instant, anyhow, at least not without risking walking into a driveway fence, or just looking incredibly strange. Because happiness arises from the depths of focus; in doing solely one thing, whether reading a book or cooking or running or writing that symphony one has too long put off — there is happiness beyond the initial inertia, past that sound barrier of important-seeming distractions. It is when multiple imperatives impress themselves upon our time that happiness steals quietly out of sight.
And so it is here, in this space without gravity, that I find this state; not just a place in geography or a place in time, but a place secreted inside the fabric of a life. Moving cars and falling leaves, sounds of wet pavement and of crickets in a city park, air tinged by smoke from wood-burning fireplaces; all are threads securing this space as distinct from others in the tapestry, work and family and friends, ambitions and frustrations, secrets, desires. A place for which all these will find themselves excluded; a place of peace, through which I may sojourn, weightless, back home.
Michelle Chikaonda is a writer from many places who somehow keeps coming back to Philly. She lives in Old City.
This was originally published on Philly Love Notes.