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Walking the Walk

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I’ve been using a walking stick since February to prevent falls, stop traffic, and get seats on the streetcar. It’s worked a charm. Indeed, it’s worked in ways I never imagined. Remember the childhood rhyme, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”? Well, I owe her a million apologies.

When I walk, I pay very close attention to my surroundings, particularly the ground. Curbs, cracks, uneven sidewalks, potholes, wet sewer covers: all of these threaten my stability. It’s remarkable how much stuff is in our way and yet we manage to avoid the hazards.

The pain of my knee “shifting” and the embarrassment of falling made me quite paranoid for a while. I tend to walk on the right-hand side of the sidewalk with an ear open for the sounds of skateboards, bikes (a subject of another post altogether), and scooters, among other things. And I’m relatively young. Imagine if I were elderly. Yes, most people are respectful of their elders (holding doors, letting folk pass, and so on), but your thought process of venturing forth when you are unsure of your footing makes you rethink leaving the house.

I could join the chorus of voices advocating for seniors, but that’s redundant. Besides, I’ve learned that retirees are pretty good at advocating for themselves as they have a lot of time on their hands, and now that their numbers are swelling, I’ll leave them to their own devices. They’ve seen and done a lot more than I have thus far. They don’t need my help.

But let’s consider the broader picture. Eighteen or eighty, we are all one misstep from being temporarily disabled. One false foot placement on a crumbling curb and you can find yourself in emergency with a broken leg. Sure eight weeks in a cast and you’re on the mend, but you still need to get around. If you live on your own, as a growing number of us are, you need to navigate the city. Suddenly the state of sidewalk repair becomes a priority.

Pedestrians are often forgotten in the so-called war on cars by cycling enthusiasts. Indeed, walking seems to be seen as recreational as opposed to a means of transport; as through real commuters drive or cycle. Even if you live in the downtown core, you stroll to work, leisurely without a care in the world, lazily sucking back a fluffy coffee. As if.
People take this behaviour to heart—stopping to gawp at shop windows, to chat to neighbours, to indulge their child—right in the middle of the already narrow sidewalk, which is already considered fair game for hawking merchandise and parking bikes. I expect that on an average day the useable width of a sidewalk on a main street is about two feet—for two-way traffic. No wonder we apologize so damn much.

This is why Toronto needs to widen its sidewalks and invest money in their maintenance. Not to cut down on the beg your pardons, but rather to prepare for the future. Despite Google’s invention of driverless cars, I think we’ll all be walking. In fact, walkability is now a crucial factor in housing prices. Being able to stroll to work, to stores, to cafes, and see your neighbours helps to define quality of life and therefore safe communities. Don’t believe me? Search for “walkability real estate.” Walking is cool.


Learning to Navigate: An Introduction

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About five years ago I was diagnosed with chondromalacia patella (patellafemoral, a.k.a. “runner’s knee”), which is characterized by pain, stiffness, and my knee giving out seemingly spontaneously. I think this was caused by running, climbing CN Towers, cycling, and generally being active, then compounded by a bike accident in which I banged up my right knee. When I was diagnosed, I sought out physiotherapy, massage, and a brace, but after a while I felt that I had plateaued; the symptoms had apparently subsided.

Fast forward to now and the problem has roared back with a vengeance: massive swelling, falling, and immobility. This time, however, my older and wiser self has determined to stabilize the damn thing (again with physio, massage, and an improved brace). I don’t hope to run 5K or climb 1,776 stairs, but a bike ride on the Martin Goodman trail might be nice . . . one day. We shall see.

Part of my strategy is to use a cane to prevent falls when my knee gives out, to stop traffic, and to get a seat on transit.
Now, I’m not going to moan about my “plight” as things could be much worse: cancer, dementia, and so on. This is just a wonky knee (actually, both knees are cranky) and I have a plan in place to diminish the wonk. No, I’m going to observe the world around me (sidewalks, roads, cars, infrastructure, cyclists, and pedestrians) and how I navigate through it.

Approximately, twenty years ago, I wrote an article for the now-defunct Ottawa music paper Trans FM about accessibility, centring on clubs and bars. The paper was a guide to campus radio station CKCU.FM (a.k.a. “The Mighty 93”) and it dawned on me that some of our listeners may not be able to get in the clubs and bars that not only sponsored the station but also hosted bands. In fact, I once saw one fellow plucked out of his chair and carried upstairs by staff at Barrymore’s. While I don’t think the bloke who carried the guy felt anything but compassion and goodwill, I think the man being carried harboured a sense of indignity and lost independence.

I remember one summer when I severely sprained my ankle and required a cast. I had a Ramones ticket and was determined to see them at RPM. So rather than use my crutches, I hired a wheelchair (yes, I know). Fortunately, I didn’t have to power myself all night as my friend Linda was there to push me around (a rare case of this, so don’t get any crazy ideas). As we rolled closer to the stage, a bouncer told Linda to move me back, so she did. I literally put the brakes on.
“Where am I going?”
“The guy told me to move you back.”
“Hey, guy.”
“My foot’s broken, not my fucking head. You want to move me, ask me, not my helper.”
How often does that conversation transpire, I wondered. This was a temporary measure for night, not a lifetime.

And now, here I am again using a device normally reserved for the elderly to move around safely and securely. My fingers are crossed that this, too, is a temporary measure. That said, the perspective is remarkable as is the opportunity to use it to help make Toronto a more mobile city. Stay tuned.



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