Tuesday, February 13, 2007

From the Couch: Desire Paths

That's right. Blogging from my couch. It's very exciting. In celebration of this momentous event, I give you the missing lesbian radio piece, Desire Paths.

My first years in Portland, I didn’t need a car. My feet--and the spotty public transportation system--carried me wherever I needed to go. For a time, I worked at the health food store, where the bus schedule was somewhere way past spotty, on the edge between cruel and ridiculous. So I walked. After dropping my daughter off at daycare in the East End and kissing my girlfriend goodbye, I walked the churchy stretch of Cumberland Avenue and down into the wind towards the bay. I walked, and walked.

The shortest route was down Franklin Arterial: two rushing double lanes bordered by green knolls, and a wide median planted with more grass and trees. Though the stretch from Cumberland Avenue to Marginal Way is perhaps half a mile, it seemed three times as far. Franklin Art connects the interstate to the Old Port just as efficiently as it divides the Bayside neighborhood. Its indifferent traffic and lack of sidewalks is hardly on a human scale.

Walking Franklin Arterial is a lesson in humility. In summer, you walk on a dusty path in the trodden grass on the side of the road. The wind from the passing cars drives gravel into your legs, and there is no respite from the exhaust fumes in the steady traffic. People speed by, your head bows into the heat. You can’t help but imagine the effect of a ton or two of fast-moving metal on the human body. Your body. The dust and chemicals taste like apocalypse.

One day I noticed a path that slanted through a gap in a fence, across the banks of dusty grass, through the median, across the other side, up the other bank, and between the bent links of a chain fence. The path was a brown track made by feet back and forth between the housing development on one side and the downtown on the other. It ignored sidewalks, roadways, and the square lines of a city block, moving directly between two places where people need to go. On its own terms. It inexplicably cheered me as I walked every day, home to work, work to home. In the winter the path beat down the snow into frozen footsteps and fearlessly crossed the icy asphalt. In spring, the grass sprang green around the mud churned up by busy feet. I never actually saw anybody using it, but clearly people did, and do. Lots of them.

City planners and other neighborhood developers call these desire paths, because they reflect a pedestrian wish—to get straight from the housing development to the downtown, for example. Pedestrians like to walk in straight lines, and they like to take as few steps as possible. This desire path on Franklin Arterial is the imaginary extension of Oxford Street. In a recent article in the Portland Phoenix, a resident who lives near this particular desire path on Franklin Arterial wondered why people don’t walk the five hundred feet up to the sidewalk to cross at the intersection where there are crosswalks.

But why should they? If you can walk straight across, why go out of your way? Because someone has laid concrete down at a right angle to other roads? Here, I felt, was a truth: mostly we walk on the paths that are laid out for us, but sometimes we make our own way, because it’s faster, or shorter, or because the grocery bags are so heavy in our hands that we cannot afford to go one single step out of our way.

It happens that way: rules and expectations are laid out for us. They are the paved streets and sidewalks. Usually they go where we wanted to go anyway: work at a job, get a paycheck; use your blinker, avoid an accident. Or take a road ten miles up, turn left at the old fire station, and drive all the way to the end to watch the sun come up over Casco Bay.

But sometimes the roads don’t go where we’d be going. Sometimes the path takes an inexplicable curve that would take us fifteen steps out of our way. Or fifty. Sometimes a road is severed to make room for a busier one, and sometimes neighborhoods are divided by wide strips of tar and traffic moving far faster than any person can run, the interests of one group trumping those of another.

And sometimes laws cut across our lives because other people aren’t thinking about what it will do to us, or worse--if they are thinking about it, they don’t care. Sometimes the looks of strangers clutter the way into my daughter’s school, so I drop your partner’s hand and look down. Sometimes a preacher will spill hatred in the guise of teaching morality. Sometimes we are told who it’s okay for us to love, and who it’s not, or who can wear dresses, or who should but doesn’t.

These are the streets we’re meant to follow, and maybe those streets go where most people were going anyway; that’s why us queers are a minority, after all. But some people break paths in defiance of the right angles and concrete. They dart across the dangerous pavement, dodging hatred and ignorance, big suckers than can squish a body flat with the shape of a curled lip or a raised fist. Steady feet follow each other through the mud and beat down the snow and make a path that should, by all logic, be there anyway. We slip through the links in chained fences and sometimes we even show up at meetings to demand why the road stops in such a dumbass place anyway.

It cheers me, as I trudge along the side of a dirty road, to see the paths that people are making in defiance of the planners and developers. I think that sometimes those planners forget the size of the human body, forget the needs of people who live in them, and the way that lives don’t fit into right angles. Remind them. Even if you don’t make it to the meetings, show them the way with your feet, your body, your actions. Follow your own desire path, and make new ones, and show them where the roads should have been going all along.


j said...


You should submit this to "mombian"

Also, it was great hanging out with you both last week.

Sarah said...

That was really, really good.


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