“For such is the inequality of our corporeal to our intellectual faculties, that we contrive in minutes what we execute in years” – Dr Johnson
We put on our Sunday best and stepped south down the Carlyle sidewalk, ducking leaf-heavy branches and chatting with little aim. The August sky rolled with clouds; the river sat glassy; the air moved but without a hint of bluster. It was late morning. Church bells rang downtown, and the necklace tourists were beginning to emerge and sift through Jesus Green toward the centre. ‘Let’s take this sidewalk,’ I said as we stepped off the footbridge by the ice cream shack, “alter the routine, keep our brains guessing.” My wife agreed with a slight swerve.
Jesus Green has two tree-lined sidewalks—one old, grand, wide, and plane-treed, and one new and narrow-trunked. We took the latter. Others walked before and behind us, stringing up and down the sidewalk in a silent, straight procession, and I was glad to remember that this was not just a sidewalk but a freeway—older and more storied than the M11 or I70. I thought too how tragic it is that the great pedestrian, tree-lined freeways of Cambridge are now relegated to the words ‘sidewalk’ and ‘pavement’, while the hot, barren, rubber-flecked, death-dealing motorways retain those names. I thought how the highway was no longer a place for a highwayman, and a freeway was no place for a free man, while the pedestrian paths are still veins of commerce and vessels of travel—places of conversation as well as movement, of encounters with men, not machines. The good Samaritan could still operate here, I thought. He would have to pass by on the other side of the M11.
But my thoughts were interrupted by a distant yell coming from the southeast across the opens of the green. I squinted in that direction. All I saw at first was a streak of Sainsbury’s orange hurtling across the open grass toward our sidewalk. Another yell, and another. I still could not hear words, but I recognized rage in the voice. I craned again, and this time I saw him: he was on a bike, pedalling like mad, almost galloping across Jesus Green in the direction of the tennis lawn just ahead. Orange grocery bags swung from his handlebars, and his right arm was extended straight in front of him—lance like. From a distance he looked like some errant knight pricking across the plain in fear and wrath. And all the time he ranted and screamed and cried out like a minor prophet. By now we could hear what he said, “We need you! Men are dying! Can Cambridge form a militia? Harvard can do it! Princeton can do it! Why can’t Cambridge? You! You cowards talk; I want to see you walk. Go fight. We need you. Men are dying. Go fight. Cowards! And you’re doing nothing. We need you! We need you!”
We were not yet to the portion of the sidewalk by the tennis lawn where he was heading, but those who were had, by now, seen the man descending upon them. They froze and quailed. He raged on, shooting nearer and nearer. No one moved. Just as he reached them he swerved off and rode parallel to the sidewalk, pointing at every person he passed, and continuing to yell “Cowards! We need you! Men are dying! Why won’t you help?” He crossed the sidewalk and rode down the other side, continuing to point, continuing to rant. The pedestrians began moving again, heads down, feet shuffling. After three or four more passes, he stopped in the middle of the pavement facing in our direction.
We walked toward him. He continued to rave about militias and men dying; he called us cowards; he called us worse. He shook his outstretched finger. He did not move. All those on the sidewalk were now walking quickly, veering around him to the right and left; giving him a wide berth. He became a kind of river boulder, cutting one stream into two. At last, it was our turn to face him. I will stay on the sidewalk, I thought. I will not be intimidated. Just then I felt my wife detach and slide to the left of the path. He continued to stare me down with his Nahum-eyes, and I did not veer.
An encounter on a motorway is an encounter between two hermetic machines—buffering the selves within from other selves and the outside world. For an automobile is a little world that pretends to autonomy and breeds isolation. In a way, the new highway is a place of deadly quiet—only loud in one sense, silent in every other—in chatter, in cries, in yells, in laughter. At least ships passing in the night can call out to one another. Cars passing on the highway can only roar. Not so the pedestrian freeway. On it, every pass is a potential encounter, a dangerous proximity, an electric potential. A man may be grabbed, hit, bowled, complimented, insulted, praised, robbed, denounced, or nit-picked by any stranger on the path. The motorway is dangerous because it is fast. The pedestrian freeway is dangerous because it is slow. The motorway is volatile because it is inhuman. The pedestrian freeway is volatile because it is human, for there the only buffer is convention, the only barrier propriety.
And I found myself face-to-face with a madman who lacked the faculty for convention and the gift of propriety. The danger of this crept upon me as a neared. I had a vague goal of staying between him and my wife; Tennyson flashed through my mind: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ I clenched my fists. My face grew hot, but I kept a straight line. Madness has its own charged energy one can feel like static electricity before a lightning storm—a sense of total unpredictability. One feels what it might be like for the absolute to meet the relative.* At least that is how I felt as I readied myself to meet him.
Just as I approached, he seemed to run out of things to say, or perhaps his brain hit a barrier like a fly at a window. He began repeating, over and over, in a winded, hoarse voice ‘We need you. We need you. We need you. We need you.” He grew less frightening and more pathetic. It occurred to me, then, for just an instant, that I could help—run up to him, offer my services, lead him away to a safe and quiet place, bind up his wounds, pay the innkeeper, leave money for his provision. But by then, I had already passed by on the other side.
R. Eric Tippin
Christ’s College Library, Cambridge
*This idea was stolen from a priest at St. Edmund’s College whose name I did not catch.