Porpoise on My Tail

“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.”
    —Lewis Carroll, “The Lobster-Quadrille,”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I finished my walk about two minutes faster this morning than I have the past few mornings, in large part because there was a porpoise behind me. (Actually, I thought of her as a lobster because I was remembering the quotation wrong, but that’s neither here nor there.) I’ll get to that later.

It was a reasonably pleasant morning, and there were quite a few other people out running, walking, biking, and airing their dogs. I find it interesting to observe the reactions of people as they meet or overtake other walkers, runners, bikers, motorists, etc. I have noted the following:

By and large we’re a friendly bunch. In general, almost all walkers, as well as most runners and bikers, will at least wave or nod or at least smile to acknowledge others they encounter. This includes neighbors working in their yards or sitting on their porches and most motorists, though the latter usually on faith, since tinted windshields make it impossible in most cases to know whether or not the driver has responded (or in fact may have waved first).

Walkers encountering one another will usually exchange a word or two, “Good morning” (or just “morning” if they’re out of breath) at minimum; sometimes the exchange will extend to a few brief pleasantries about the weather. In most cases walkers don’t want to break stride, so the window for remarks is small, but the mood is cordial.

I’m usually surprised when a walker doesn’t respond. There is one woman (I call her “the crooked woman” because, although quite young, she is a little bent to one side) who assiduously avoids eye contact, keeping her head down and averted. I’ve never been sure whether she’s aloof, meditating, or just painfully shy. Very occasionally she will nod or mutter a word or two, but this is very rare. Mothers strolling infants, on the other hand, tend to be especially responsive.

Bikers sometimes come along in twos or threes, but most walkers and runners I encounter are alone. There’s one large group of runners that I believe must be part of a track team, but they’re the exception. I find that pairs and couples are somewhat less responsive than solitary walkers. Married couples are usually not too wrapped up in each other; sometimes they’re chatting desultorily but more often silent. (There’s one couple in which the woman is always striding out front and her husband, red-faced and panting, doing his best to keep up with her. I don’t know whether she’s promoting his health or trying to kill him.) Such couples will usually greet me, but I often find myself entirely ignored by a pair of women walking together. There is an ideal distance at which to make eye contact, to avoid the necessity of having to speak prematurely (it’s early morning, so we don’t want to have to raise our voices too loud), but these people avoid eye contact up to and entirely beyond that point. I’m sure they don’t realize they seem unfriendly; they’re just carrying on a conversation they have no desire to interrupt.

But meeting people going in the opposite direction is an easy situation compared to overtaking or joining people going in the same direction. For the most part, I find that we almost universally try to avoid it. Most of us have our established routes, and many of us, like me, are walking for exercise and trying for a bit of speed (invariably, though, on a day when I am bidding fair to beat my personal best, some motorist will stop and ask me for directions, or a neighbor will want to strike up a conversation, or a long line of motorists will decline to stop for a crosswalk). Walking with another person requires some amount of adaptation—walking slower or faster, possibly going a different route, engaging in perhaps more conversation than acquaintance warrants. So if someone is walking past my house in the direction I intend to go when I get to the front door, I’ll hesitate a few seconds before going out. If a walker in front of me turns left, I may decide to turn right instead (I do have some decision points where I can vary my route). There’s nothing more awkward than having another person walking just in front of you or just behind you. In both cases I find myself speeding up to either outdistance or overtake and pass the other person.

This morning, as I headed into the home stretch, I passed a woman I had seen fairly often, but until I ran into her at a neighborhood fundraiser recently, I hadn’t known where she lived. Our conversation there had been brief and fumbling. Now here she was, in her driveway, just setting out on her walk. Although she was bent over doing something with her socks and didn’t acknowledge my passing, I think she had to have seen me out of the corner of her eye, and that’s probably why she took a few extra seconds to adjust her socks before hitting the street. Then she stepped out behind me, and I was very conscious, especially every time I turned a corner, that she was just a few yards behind, “treading on my tail.” I’m not sure where I lost her (she evidently turned off before I reached my street), but she certainly spurred me to unusual speed!

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