The Great Saunter

Walking the 32-Mile Manhattan Shoreline

 May, 1999

One spring Saturday not long after Ann and I moved back to New York from Hong Kong, I participated in THE GREAT SAUNTER, an annual hike around the 32-mile perimeter of Manhattan Island.  It’s put on by the Shorewalkers, a group of people who take pleasure in long walks at the edge of water.

I envisioned something like the livery of seizin, a medieval English ceremony in which a vassal would obtain a freehold interest in a part of a lord’s land.  In the presence of witnesses, lord and vassal would walk or ride around the plot in question and agree on boundaries.  Then the lord would symbolically deliver the property by handing the vassal a clod of dirt or a clump of grass.  In fact, ownership as we understand the term remained with the crown.  Still, the vassal, not being very bright, came away with a sense of ownership and presumably an improved attitude.

This was our third time to move to the city, and I felt an urge to formalize my appropriation of a life as a New Yorker.  What better way than to walk the shoreline of the great island on a glorious spring day while imagining the livery of seizin?  There would be plenty of witnesses, and I could swear fealty — or just swear as seemed appropriate at the time.  I would have to select someone to play the role of lord, but that would be easy enough.

On a Saturday morning at 7:30 about a hundred Great Saunterers gathered at the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan.  After a half hour of announcements, waiver signing, cap sales, and other matters, we set off in a clockwise direction around the island.

We’d only just begun, and I was softly humming “I’ll take Manhattan,” when there occurred the first few of many encounters with “this isn’t quite what I had in mind.”  After a few hundred steps, we passed through the wholesale fish market.  It was closed, but the smell remained.  Next was the rotting dross of a homeless encampment.  Then locked restrooms.  And on and on.

Some people don’t know this, but I am an authority on sauntering.  My natural gait is something between a saunter and a mosey.  When I saw the line of Shorewalkers stretched out a half mile or so in front of me, I said to myself, “these people are not sauntering.  They are stepping out smartly.”  No problem though.  Every time we came upon a bunch of buses and garbage trucks parked with their big diesel engines rumbling, someone would call time out.  We’d snuggle up close to the tail pipes, breathe deeply, and relax for a while.  Those Shorewalkers are tres New York.

In the beginning I was not especially bothered about any of this.  The view across the harbor to Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island was quite moving, as always.  They offered a sense of peace, patriotic pride, and gratitude for being a part of this great, unruly city, no matter what offbeat exercise I and some other oddballs had embarked upon.

We rounded the southern tip of the island and started up the West Side through Battery Park City, the mixed use development that had been built on landfill from the World Trade Center.  The next 5.9 miles were being developed as a park.  We walked in narrow lanes between concrete barriers.  At the end of that lovely stretch, we stopped for a press conference at which the city’s Parks Commissioner and his New York State counterpart seemed to be making speeches.  Their mouths opened, but any sounds they might have been making were overridden by passing traffic.  I thought one of them might be the right person to hand me a lump of dirt when the time came.  Not a good idea, though.  They weren’t there for the whole saunter, just a pro forma mile or so following the inaudible speeches.

Everyone who knows anything about THE GREAT SAUNTER agrees that the West Side is the best part of it.  If I had known that at the time, I might have just bagged the sauntering and gone to play bocce ball or something else especially New York.

Some of the West Side was enjoyable, though.  The view of the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson stretching north beyond it between steep hills and cliffs was a wonder.  Also, it was naughty fun to pull back a loose bit of chain link fence and walk defiantly through a long section of land Donald Trump would soon develop.  His minions watched us gimlet-eyed and hostile, walkie-talkies at the ready.  I was not afraid, though.  I crawled through the fence right behind Ruth Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President.  I’d like to see the Donald take on our Ruth.  Maybe, I thought, I would get her to hand me a lump of dirt.

Soon, however, minor frustrations began to add up.  No marching songs.  No guide pointing out interesting sights along the way.  For a long time, no lunch.  No one had said anything about bringing one, and no one had warned that the route had been specially designed to avoid all possible encounters with the island’s thousands of bodegas, candy stores, and supermarkets.  How is it possible, I wondered, to become hungry and dehydrated in the densely populated capital city of the whole world?  It was all the more imponderable because at the same time many of us were desperate to find a toilet.  (Some of us still had not adopted the New York rule that all walls are urinals; all spaces between parked cars, full-fledged toilets.)  At 2:00 we came to a hotdog vendor in Inwood Park at the extreme north end of the island and took a break.  I had two dogs, an ice cream bar, some M & M’s, and two cokes and felt better.

Before pushing on, we were warned that the next segment, which ran southeast along the Harlem River, would be a little harder.  I asked several people who, inexplicably, were doing this trek a second or third time what that meant — “harder.”  No one knew.  It was, though.

Maybe the increasing difficulty made me grumpy, but what we did during the next three hours did not meet my idea of shorewalking.  We saw a lot of Harlem River Drive (a highway) and Harlem streets jammed with boom cars blasting salsa or rap (no Bach), but no shore and very little of the Harlem River.  That was disappointing.  For years I had heard about floaters, and I had really wanted to see one.

Somewhere in that segment, a bunch of our group got on the subway.  Those of us who were left kept getting broken up by traffic lights into increasingly smaller groups.  After a bit of this, I formed an opinion that we hardy band of Shorewalkers may have been the only people north of about 160th Street who knew what the function of a traffic light was.

I began to sense that things were starting to come apart seriously when conversation became a repetition of, “I think that’s them up there.”  Occasionally a local would offer, “Your friends turned at the next corner.”  I can’t imagine how they spotted us so easily.  It wasn’t like we were wearing uniforms or anything.

At St. Nicholas Avenue and 185th Street, the Shorewalkers’ president said he was going to wait for some stragglers.  He and they would go around another way and meet the rest of us a mile or so farther on.  Sure he was.  He didn’t fool me for a minute.  He was dropping out.  Big loss.  From early on, I was not much impressed with his leadership skills.  I said adios, and jogged up a hill that looked short but felt long — probably because I’d been walking for seven hours — to catch a group of about ten who were taking what seemed to me a better route.  When I caught up to them, I saw that what they were taking was the subway.

No problem.  I saw some more of our bunch about a half mile farther on, down a sort of highway.  I ran after them, and soon I was with a group of sixteen who had no idea at all how to get anywhere close to the Harlem River.  Since we had run out of subways, and there were certainly no taxis cruising the area, there was nothing to do but to keep walking.

We asked directions here and there and did the best we could.  This was about the 16–18 mile point, I think.  (The latter day Lewis and Clarks who’d been putting on this event for years had not bothered to mark any distances along the way).  Anyway we were far enough into the trek that we had finally slowed to a true saunter.  And as we did, the terrain became more interesting.

We sauntered over highway trash piled up in a three-foot strip between a highway guardrail and a chain link fence.  We sauntered/staggered over thirty-foot high heaps of asphalt chunks, the city’s dump for streets that had been scraped up.  We sauntered through a half-acre cache of road salt.  We sauntered past (not on) syringes and used condoms.  We sauntered through ordinary garbage.

Sauntering was morphing into trudging when we came within sight of the TriBoro Bridge and the East River.  Gritty urban vista though it was, in the circumstances, it was a much-needed pick-me-up.  I trudged along with one other person.  Occasionally, she and I spotted one or two of our group ahead or behind.  At about 28 or 29 miles, I was beginning to bond with this person and feel a little less disappointed about how my day was going.  Then in front of Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s official residence, she got on a city bus.

At that point I experienced the return of common sense.  I became aware of a bunch of stuff all at once.  I had blue ribbon blisters on both feet, my back was in spasm, I was still several miles from the finish, and no matter how often I scanned the East River esplanade, I couldn’t spot a single other person of the hundred or so I’d started out with.

Before getting on a subway, I toyed with the idea of knocking on the Mayor’s door to see if I could get him to hand me a symbol of my payment.  No clod of dirt either.  One of those syringes I’d been stepping around.  Maybe that would make him rethink closing the methadone clinics.  He probably wouldn’t have answered the door, but it didn’t matter.  I had decided up in Harlem that the livery of seizin analogy was wrong.  What I’d been doing all day was more like a tomcat spraying here and there marking his territory willy-nilly.

In any case, New York is now mine in a way it wasn’t before I’d experienced THE GREAT SAUNTER.


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