I’ve been reading some short stories by Damon Runyon. I’d read some of his work before, but not much, and I think Runyon is one of those authors who suffers because people think they know all about him even if they’ve never read a word: blame Guys and Dolls.
Anyway, as I continue to read my Runyon, I find that he often talks about people “walking up and down.” And sometimes he obviously means this in a perfectly literal way, and sometimes he seems to mean it in some specialized or metaphoric way that I don’t always understand.
Sometimes it seems to mean going about your business, or it can mean stepping out with a woman. Sometimes it seems to mean being free – as in you’re walking up and down as opposed to being in jail. But then there are times when I just don’t know what it means. See this, from the story “The Brain Goes Home:”
“He is maybe forty years old, give or take a couple of years, and he is commencing to get a little bunchy about the middle, what with sitting down at card-tables so much and never taking any exercise outside of walking guys such as me up and down in front of Mindy's for a few hours every night.” What exactly does it mean to walk up and down in those circumstances?
Elsewhere in Runyon, walking may be a poetic and melancholy activity. This is from “The Lily of St Pierre:”
“When a guy has a battle with his doll, such as his sweetheart, or even his ever-loving wife, he certainly feels burnt up inside himself, and can scarcely think of anything much. In fact, I know guys who are carrying the torch to walk ten miles and never know they go an inch. It is surprising how much ground a guy can cover just walking around and about, wondering if his doll is out with some other guy.”
And of course Runyon, and his narrator, are interested in the way the “dolls” walk as well. This is from “The Brakeman's Daughter:”
“Well, besides black hair, this doll has a complexion like I do not know what, and little feet and ankles, and a way of walking that is very pleasant to behold. Personally, I always take a gander at a doll’s feet and ankles before I start handicapping her, because the way I look at it, the feet and ankles are the big tell in the matter of class.”
Most of Runyon’s characters do most of their walking in New York, although there are plenty of exceptions. Runyon himself seems to have been more of a sitter than a walker, planting himself at Lindy’s Deli and keeping his eyes and ears open. “I am the sedentary champion of the city,” he wrote. “In order to learn anything of importance, I must remain seated. Why I am the best is that I can last an entire day without causing a chair to squeak.”
Finally Runyon the man became very much like a Runyon character. He has a wife out in the suburbs, but he fell for “a down-on-her-luck Spanish countess from Madrid named Patrice, who was, of course, actually an up-on-her-heels Mexican dancer from Tampico. She was twenty-six years younger than he was, and seems to have led him quite a life.” That’s Adam Gopnik writing about Runyon in the New Yorker, where he also quotes Jimmy Breslin on the matter. Patrice “sat with him about as long as the form chart for these things indicated that she would.” Her full name was Patrice Amati del Grande, and she left him in the final year of his life when he was dying from throat cancer. Maybe it would have been better if they’d done a little more uncomplicated walking up and down together.