The Suburban Sentinel: Everyday walking between worlds, with my dog.

“He walked with equipoise, possibly in either city. Schrodinger’s pedestrian.”

China Miéville (2009) The City & The City. London: Picador

Think of Berlin. Think of the Berlin Wall. Think of a city sliced in two by an arbitrary dividing line, severing streets, communities and lives. Then think of the awkwardness of cutting a city in two. In bifurcated Berlin there were pre-existing trainlines that wove between the two worlds, travelling without stopping through stations that happened to be on the wrong side of those tracks.  These glitches in the seeming neatness of the division created liminal zones that were either in neither East or West Berlin, or were in both. Adjusting to the enclosed worlds of the East and the West would have been most difficult at those points of overlap.

I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s The City & The City. This novel takes the oddity of the cross-over points between two otherwise separated worlds and seeks to explore the ‘cross-hatched’ (overlap) zones, and the sheer anxiety and perceptual effort needed by denizens of either world if and when they try to ‘breach’ into the other territory. The novelty of Miéville’s scenario is that he focusses on the awkward arts of living at the point of overlap. In his strange conjoined double city, there are places where both cities exist – they share the same space – but each set of citizens are trained (under threat of terrible sanction) to not notice (to ‘unsee’) the people, vehicles and buildings of the other interwoven place.

Miéville deftly explores the legal geography of these warped realities, making this scenario both strange and familiar. And it is the familiar – and mundane – aspect of navigating two (or more) co-located worlds that I want to explore here.

I have a dog and I have a need for daily exercise and routine. I walk the same circuit every morning. It takes me around a set route, in a set sequence. I depart each day at almost exactly the same time. It is like stepping into a clock’s mechanism. As I walk the route, familiar pedestrian cross my path like the hands of a clock, intercepting my passage at some point in my journey, marking out the slight variance of my (and/or their) starting time. I, and each person I pass, are on their own orbital path, enacting their own routines. With some, nods of acknowledgement are exchanged. with others, nothing: like we are invisible to each other.

This circulation takes place upon residential pavements. These are public spaces (designated as highways, available for the use of all). But occasionally, a car will edge out from a driveway, crossing the pavement to reach the road: a fraction of a daily commuting project enacted across three separate territories: driveway (private), pavement (public – for pedestrians), road (public – for cars). This navigation requires careful looking (so as not to collide with someone else, and their ambulatory projects) but little active thought about the acts of transition through three distinctly encoded territories.

The deep familiarity of my daily walking of the same route mostly allows me to spend my time not thinking about the act of walking. Muscle memory steers me on an optimum line around this circuit. But (necessarily) my eyes stay open (my muscle memory’s not that good). And open eyes tend to seek out something to see. As I walk my circuit, I nowadays find myself haunted by things I don’t want to see. My underactive mind is seeking out elements to engage with, and with the daily scene changing so little it approaches the world as a ‘spot the difference’ puzzle, and I find myself noticing the tiniest things that are ‘out of order’ in this overly-familiar space. Day by day I note the onward degeneration of a banana skin, I see that someone has put out the wrong coloured bin for emptying, I see that someone’s brake light isn’t working. But most annoyingly, my superhero special power seems to be to be able to spot at 100 yards any car window that has been left open. Seemingly, I am especially attuned to the missing reflection that an open window pane is not sending back to me.

Such observations induce a sinking feeling. I’m tugged back into the world. I have to decide what responsibility I have for the banana skin (as a slip hazard), for the fact that someone is going to miss out on their bin collection, that if it rains someone’s car’s interior is going to get rather wet (or their car stolen). My hyper-familiarity with this set of streets makes me feel responsible, like I have an obligation to act upon what I have noticed. But to act requires me to step out of my dog-walker-tracks, and to leave the pavement. Should I search for the owner of the wrong-bin, should I flag down the car with the broken brake light?

Such searches would require me to step from the pavement into the private territories and to disrupt early morning rituals. The wrong bin-house looks to be an elderly person’s home (based on the figurines that bedeck the front garden). Will my calling upon them at this early hour cause alarm? Should I just swap over their bins so that the right one is put-out for today’s collection? But what if their postal worker has an arrangement with them that precious parcels will be placed later today in the black, blue, green or brown bin that currently sits, held-back in their driveway. My mind ponders all sorts of counterfactuals – trying suddenly to read the lives of the people connected to these little signs that I have noticed.

Sometimes I manage to rationalise-away my instinct to intervene. I successfully chide myself for the unrealistic dimensions of my ‘saviour complex’. But at other times I can’t shake it off, and I step over into a private territory and press a doorbell. Whoever comes to the door usually greets me with a suspicious look (and a mouth full of cereal). I try to set out my point calmly and matter-of-factly. “Your car window’s open, mate”;“Your brake light’s gone, love”. I drop my aitches as the situation requires. But I still get a suspicious look at first – like they can’t quite believe that my simple point is all that there is to this encounter. They seem to be awaiting a second sentence, in which I suddenly try to sell or scam them something.

The likelihood of this awkward reaction adds to the deliberation of the next time that I’m contemplating action in response to an unwanted sighting of something out of place. This whole process feels thankless. Not in the sense that I want to be thanked. But more in the sense of feeling locked into this undesired super-power. The Suburban Sentinel who sees all, but actually would rather not.

Open car windows are the worst, and for reasons specific to Sheffield. The conventions of terrace dwelling in this city are that people do not use their front doors. So, seeking to locate the owner of a car-with-a-window-left-open (if not in a driveway) would require not just enquiring of a number of houses in the vicinity in the area – but also walking down the communal alley to the rear of the terrace to knock on rear doors there. Entering that rear, yard space feels like a deep encroachment into private territory, but also a surveillancescape formed by the suspicious eyes of every householder who is (understandably) averse to the sight of a lone male wanderer, of uncertain purpose intruding into their space.

So, open car windows surrounded by terrace housing tend to go unaddressed by the Suburban Sentinel. But whether or not I act after seeing, either way I end up feeling troubled.

Image Credit: Luke Bennett, Berlin, 2011