A global pandemic robs our lives of innumerable and diverse things, many of them components of our social correspondence which have understandably been reduced and restricted for the sake of preserving our lives. The whole series of gestures common to a social interaction are now not only much less frequent, but because of masks worn whenever we’re not totally alone, dramatically reduced.
Where previously you and a friend might have engaged in lively conversation and could be swimming in a river of facial expressions, tone subtleties, dynamic eye movements and the gestural cues that usually accompany them, six feet of distance and face masks have drained much of the non-verbal vocabulary from your dialogue. Conversation between long-time friends or just-acquainted strangers is dampened and compressed to only the information conveyed by muffled sounds of masked words and possibly posture.
We’re not totally destitute of communicating channels, however, and while some of these social forms are muted for a time and for a good purpose, others that might otherwise be ignored have surfaced as lively tells of personality and association. Since returning to campus at the beginning of January this year, one such form has struck me as totally enrapturing now that I notice it, and if you haven’t guessed from the title of this column, I’m talking about the way we all walk.
As a campus designed with exacting specification to favor pedestrians over vehicles and despite the cold, Duke is teeming every day with students, staff and some professors traipsing across the blue-slate, irregularly-patterned paths of the main quads.
If you apply any moment of focus to the diversity of pedestrian traffic on campus, you’re met with a rich landscape of characters that tell you volumes about their personalities and identities in the absence of saying it outright. Take a moment to notice, and you become full to the brim with varying speeds, stride lengths, bounces, swaggers, techniques and occasional failures. Anyone who wanted could spend a dissertation cataloguing the mechanical details of observed gait cases and their correlates to personality profiles, but I have neither the time nor sufficient data to do something so scientific. Instead I offer to readers a few of the anecdotally observed archetypes that I’ve come across so far, mapped unseriously onto animal forms for reference and visualization.
THE CAT: Eyes wide and focused, the feline ambler stalks across the campus grounds with an interior curiosity uninhibited by their outward indifference. Usually alone but uncommonly affectionate when with others, il gatto glides very quietly, sweeping the air with their hands as their feet tap the ground noiselessly, balanced perfectly by an invisible counterweight. You have never seen them fall or trip, not even over the most egregiously raised stone section of the path between the WU-Kilgo Arcade and the HRL Arches of Craven.
THE DOG: If the cat is quiet and curious, their canine counterpart walks like noise is of least concern. Sometimes galloping and sometimes trotting, there is an affection and happiness in their gait so obvious not even a face mask could obscure it. Tripping, falling, catching a foot on a broken stone section and somersaulting through the air — nothing can deter the coverage of der Hund. They are most frequently demonstrating every ounce of their joy playing frisbee or spikeball on the main quad, infecting passersby with their joy.
THE SQUIRREL: Curious like the cat and as prone to ambulatory failures as dogs, the squirrelly walker is everywhere. You cannot traverse a surface of the campus that isn’t steeped in their presence — they seem to be on the quad every moment you are, and never without a purpose. Either in pursuit of a meal from WU or a COVID test in the BC, they move so quickly it’s frightening, usually ferreting nuts of books and packages from one place to another. While they are far from menacing, affectionate does not here apply.
THE OWL: More frequently spotted late at night than during the day, this avian ambler is not uncommonly bespectacled and very commonly wide-eyed. Exuding all the surface features of the academic personality, their feet touch the ground lightly and with such an even stride they seem to float and fly above it, never tripping and always soulfully focused on something invisible in their heads. Before the pandemic, de uil would fly out of the Gothic Reading Room after the second watch of the night with a new prophecy for the philosophy department professors to read. Some would take them as a bad omen, but I think we have yet to read their paper.
THE RAVEN: Much like the owl, the dark-robed Poe muse walks with flowy steps so swift it seems if they were to look down, they would not recognize the ground. Long-haired, darkly intelligent, and eternally outfitted as if they are on their way to walk a Prada runway, el cuervo steps forward like they would not hesitate to eat your face. Don’t step in front of them or you will almost certainly be the one removed from their path, and not the other way around.
THE BEAR: Large and pleasantly bumbling alongside the avians, felids and canids, медведь is never in a rush. Frequently guarding posts around the bus stop, or as students, stepping out of their pleasantly warm cave rooms to gather honey from the apiary we call WU, there is full contact between their heel, arch, toe and the ground as they walk. No one wishes to disturb a bear, but since they walk in such a way that they take up the center and majority of a path at a stolid, slow pace while the raven or cat wishes to move past them, perhaps they should be.
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THE BUCK: Conversant with the ursine tendency to take up an entire path while walking, the buck usually travels with others of his kind, considerably exacerbating their problematic negotiation of the space. Blanketed in the sartorial antlers of gray sweatpants, Nike ankle socks, jerseys, letterman jackets and ball caps, the buck walks with a swagger to impress secondarily the does but primarily his fellow bucks. Sometimes it’s fun to watch them butt heads, but most of us know well to stay out of their way when walking about.
THE DOE: Counterpart to the buck, the doe is also rarely alone, and never without a partner in conversation. A restless stream of dialogue with an interlocutor by phone or by her side fills her heels with so much energy that they bounce when making contact with the ground beneath her. With eyelashes swooping up black and long from her light-filled eyes and the ideal long coif framing her face, she fills the quad with buoyant steps and talkative kindness on her walk across the greens.
THE TORTOISE: Slow. Ancient. Possibly bitter, but you can’t always tell. η χελώνα is never seen laughing. No bounce, no swagger, no failure and very little speed. Never disturbed by passersby out of esteem, this dinosaur may just as well be a student as a professor emeritus. Don’t wait up for them, and please remember to forgive them for being late.
THE HARE: Quick, naïf, and hasty, the hare sings the tortoise’s counterpoint word for word. Imagine a time long past when wood-pulp papers had to be physically deposited in a metal box by a certain time for an assignment to receive full credit. Now imagine you have worked on that assignment until the last available minute and must overcome whatever considerable vertical and horizontal distance separates you from that metal box at the base of a science building with a language name. You don’t have much time, so whatever animal archetype you previously exemplified melts away and you become the swiftest mammal on campus, determined not to let the outdated fetters of physically turning in an assignment rob you of full credit. You are faster than the wind and oblivious to obstacles as you race your race and converge at the box with your fellow أرنبات satisfied with your determination. (Obviously, this has never happened to me.)
Now equipped with the above renditions of Duke’s pedestrian ensemble, I urge you to take a closer look at the people walking around you each day. Mundane gaits are transformed into a spectacular theatre of personalities when you’re present enough to notice them. You could pass by everyone you see on campus and ignore the way they walk because it doesn’t matter and no one is grading you on how many you identify or remember. But if you risk noticing, you’re rewarded with an uncommonly rich perception of the humanity around you.
From an intentional study of the different gaits on display throughout campus, you may encounter productive knowledge of the personalities you amble alongside that you would never otherwise have acquired. There’s so much we can’t perceive in the social interactions we have with each other due to the necessary restrictions of a global pandemic, but from at least six feet away and even beneath the veil of a face mask, a person’s gait can communicate their very self through the mundanity of getting from one place to another.
Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Fridays.