Nervous but eager like I am about to leap off a high bridge into a swimming hole at night. I’ve been secretly buzzed all morning, jangled with anticipation, like the old days, back when the crawl was new.
Anything can become redundant. If a baby were to be born over and over again, stuck in a loop of birth, after a while the baby would stop crying on arrival. The fear and trauma and shock would be gone and the most radical of experiences would become old hat. Same with death? Maybe the people who aren’t afraid to die have just done it more than the rest of us.
I crawled alone for the first time today. No more putting it off. In the wake of my L.A. trip I was thinking about it all the time. I sullied the crawl a bit in Hollywood, talking about it to the agent and others, talking about how I was entering the pivotal “third act” of the crawl, wondering what other forms it could take. It’s a movie! It’s a reality show! It’s a board game!! It’s a dance craze! I grossed myself out.
Someone close to me said they wanted the crawl to be more pure. They liked the pure parts best. You and me both, brother. But it can’t be pure all the time because I am not pure all the time. Often I am polluted! I am a stream that you should not drink from. Maybe occasionally I run clean and clear but other times, it’s not a good idea. The internal and external voices that led me to the crawl are still alive and I am alternately loving and killing them as fast as I can.
Anyway, pure or not, my road has led to some freecrawling. I had to push myself out into the light, into the next life, out of the winter womb. I told nobody before I did it. Some things just have to happen. Like spring.
I get a few sideways looks on the train going down. Once again I am a man with a secret, like the old days. The exposed steel toes of my boots catch people’s eye. The steel flashes like silver. The boots don’t match the suit. I’ve got nobody to carry my backpack for me when I am crawling. My pads and gloves are in a plastic bag on my wrist. At 96 Street, late morning, I prepare for my solo.
As I put on my pads I think about my wingmen. We are making something together. What will they say to this new development? Larry has known this was coming. I guess we all knew it was coming, and they will be happy not to have to trek all the way uptown. This solo is just an experiment. Or is it my future? Why not add people to this project instead of whittling it down to only me? I know my friends enjoy these outings but do they really want to be a part of the whole thing? Maybe they have been waiting, like patient parents, for me to finally declare my independence.
I get down on my knees and a woman in a suit looks me in the eye and quickens her high heeled stride past me headed south. My wife and son have no idea where I am right now or what I’m doing. Usually they know when it is a crawl day for dad. But this time I didn’t want to say a word. For a second I think about texting my wife or taking my picture and sending it to her. But I just sit there on my knees for another minute wondering what it is I am trying to prove. Why am I alone again? I just need to get home. I just want to find the core and finish. I look down at the smooth palms of my worn leather work gloves. My heart shouldn’t be so heavy.
Enough thinking. The light turns green and I crawl across the intersection. The motion is the same as ever and the action instantly starts to heal the sadness.
Within a block I am struck by an obvious idea--the documentation can be done by strangers. And this is what happens. People take pictures, sometimes selfies with me, and I ask them to please email me the pictures. I give them my card. Within a few blocks I am feeling hopeful and communal, humming to myself as I go.
I am recognized. Someone I know has spotted me. This is a first.
“Robbie!” she calls out from her blue minivan. This woman is a neighbor from upstate.
“Hi,” I say, staying down on hands and knees.
“Hi, I’m heading upstate right now,” she says about to turn west on 96th for the west side highway. She says it as if I might need a ride or as a way to tell me she can’t talk right now.
“I’m crawling,” I say, loud enough so she can hear me.
“I know!” she shouts back.
I guess it is pretty obvious what I am doing. There is nothing else to say and I keep on going.
The texture of engagement with others is different when I am alone. I am sharing the sidewalk in a new way. I need these strangers like I never have before. I am tickled by the idea that when I get home there will be emails, pictures from strangers, just as they had promised.
I can’t believe I didn’t do this sooner. But afterwards there will be nobody to talk to about what just happened. Soloing renders me the sole witness. A witness is different than a spectator. I alone saw what happened. This fact forces me to pay a different kind of attention. I will only have the memories I forage for myself.
Cop legs coming towards me. Four of them. They always work in pairs. One is a young skinny-necked white man and the other a stout Latina woman in sunglasses and not a chance of a smile. It feels different knowing I have no back-up. I do my usual rap, lay it on a little thick, over explaining myself, probably because of my nerves. Once again they decide I am not a threat to anyone, so they let me continue. I give the female officer my card and feel I overstepped. I could be stopped and frisked but I don’t seem to raise those flags. I am not on the menu.
I come upon a mason fixing a crack in the sidewalk. I tell him my son is called Mason and I was once a stonemason and we talk about how hard it is to mix the cement by hand on your own. He wants to take pictures of me and he does. He promises to send some to me but that will never happen.
He compliments my suit and I tell him it belonged to my father.
“Is your father still alive?”
“Is he okay with what you’re doing to his suit?”
I arrive at the feet of four foreign women standing outside an English language school. They have maybe four words of English between them. A stranger takes my picture with the women and promises to send it to me.
Ever since I started the crawl, all those blocks ago, certain people on the street search intensely for proof that I am not alone. They want to solve it, to answer the question I pose, all senses engage…something atavistic, akin to trying to find a lost child… that moment when you realize the child is no longer at your side.
I can almost hear people see me and then look for a camera-- so that they can dismiss what I am doing? So they can be released from the challenge of my little plight? This search for an explanation must be modern human nature mixed with something primitive, something that we need to survive.
I am with strangers and every block I find a new willing wingman, but the strangers only have a few seconds to spare. They are everywhere, but only for a moment. I feel an anonymous safety net forming beneath me according to how much I reach out to the people around me. But the net is filled with holes. It is an illusion.
Truth be told I handed out maybe a dozen crawling business cards to people who took pictures with me. And only two people sent me pictures back. They all promised. They took my card. They looked me in the eye. And then they disappeared forever. I don’t know what that means. I guess maybe it will be my responsibility now. I suppose I’ll have to selfie myself as I crawl? Am I too pure for that?
Someone is screaming up ahead. All along I’ve told myself, if things get hairy I can always stand up and fight, or run, or walk away. Instant evolution. Standing up is my eject button. It’s been great to know that I have that--- but now I wonder-- how can I have that same feeling when I am actually already standing up? What will save the standing me? You can’t eject from an ejection. Once I’m up… that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. From the standing position I have no secret power that saves me and helps me escape. Or do I?
A young man pushes an older man in a wheelchair. The man in the wheelchair is missing both legs and he does not speak English. He seems happy to see me. His helper takes my picture then darts into a bodega, returning a moment later with a bottle of cold water for me. The sidewalk is warm, the sun’s heat bouncing up off the concrete and into my torso and face. I am sweating through my shirt. We take a picture together with my phone, the man with no legs and me.
The question forever dogs me, is the crawl more “real” and “pure” if it is not documented with cameras? Or less? How valuable is a visual record? Am I now a tree falling in the forest with nobody to hear it? But I know I am still making a sound. I am keeping a journal. That was enough for Lewis and Clark! I can hear my boots scraping, and grinding, louder than ever before behind me. The steel toes are turning into mirrors. In a way I’ve said all there is to say and all that remains is the act itself. Maybe that’s true. Mine is not to reason why?
What is the next frontier? What is beyond crawling and more solo than solo? What else can I shed? What more can I offer to this project? I would like to know these things before I get home. And once I am home I will realize something new and I will long for the crawl. I am afraid I will be lost without this practice.
I wonder if I should have been alone all along. No. I wasn’t’ ready. That wasn’t me. But… am I still him?
Is there a balance to be achieved? Or is this just an ongoing series of adjustments? 55 more blocks.