As a kid of six or seven, I watched to make sure that both my feet stepped on the same number of cracks. If, for instance, the crack on a sidewalk fell under my right foot, I’d have to walk on a crack with my left foot to balance things out, otherwise it just didn’t feel right. Itchy, kind of, but not quite.
This had nothing to do with “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” I knew that was pure superstition.
It had to do with Oliver Wendell Homes.
At school, we’d taken his poem, “The Deacon’s Masterpiece or, the Wonderful ‘One-hoss Shay’ A Logical Story,” about a German deacon who builds a one-horse shay in which every part is as strong as every other part, thereby doing away with the problem of the weakest part breaking down. Of course, with no part being weaker than any other:
… it went to pieces all at once, —
All at once, and nothing first, —
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
Well, somehow from there I got the idea that if I “wore out” my body evenly, then I’d be able to last until I fell apart, with no breakdowns beforehand. This extended to touching things (if I touched something with one hand, I had to touch it with the other as well) and even came to include stepping on shadows.
Wasn’t easy, I tell you. Step. Step. Step. Step (oops). Half step. Skip step.
Not fun. Or at least, not fun all the time.
That went away, however, and maybe it was with its passing that I started watching sidewalks for an entirely different reason.
To see the dates.
I walk over a sidewalk with 1953 stamped in it and think, “Hey, that’s the year I was born,” and try to imagine the people who walked it back then. Likewise, a sidewalk with 1965 will remind me of the year I went to the New York World’s Fair. Canada’s Centennial Year (1967) was also important to me, and most sidewalks poured at that time have the centennial logo stamped in them — one of the few places you can still see it.
One of my favourite sidewalks, however, is a stretch in front of a row of old Victorian houses along Gloucester Street. I spent a lot of time there with friends and family during the late sixties and early seventies, and the sidewalks had just been poured. When I walk there, I’m walking the same places we walked all those years ago.
I know. Nostalgia.
But it’s not just personal dates that are important.
Sidewalks get poured in times of peace, war, and famine. My prize sidewalk sighting was a section under the railroad bridge behind the LCBO in Rosedale. It was poured in 1923 — just 11 years after the sinking of the Titanic. That one survived right up to the mid-nineties.
Sidewalks, in their own humble way, are the pyramids and sphinxes of modern civilization. They are the stone medium through which we mark major events. Ancient civilizations used stone records a lot. For us — not so much.
We have sidewalks, gravestones, and the cornerstones of buildings and some old bridges with dates carved on them.
These pretty well comprise our entire stone record, and while compared to ancient Egypt it may not account for much, some of them date back to pretty significant times of history.
Not all the markings in sidewalks are official, however. A great many have had initials, hand prints, foot prints, and the occasional sexual organ drawn into the still-wet cement by children and adults intent on leaving a lasting mark.
In Toronto, we even have a sidewalk (more of a lane, really) with a poem carved into it by the poet pbNichol. It reads:
No. I don’t know what it means, but he was famous.
Well, he was a famous Canadian, which means that while the rest of the world has never heard of him, in Canada he’s completely unknown.
But whoever the hell he was, we’re really, really happy he carved a poem in the sidewalk.
And not a giant penis.