Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Friday, July 7, 2017


I don’t know much about political and racial infighting in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but I do know that the Encyclopedia of African American History describes Charles William Anderson (1866-1938) as “the black Karl Rove of his day” – which sounds hard on anyone - and also as Booker T. Washington’s “eyes and ears and nose and dirty trickster.”

His fortunes rose and fell over the decades but for a very long time he was a man who had to be dealt with in New York politics, and one person who dealt with him was James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), the author of the social history Black Manhattan, a songwriter, teacher, and a national organizer for the NAACP.

Johnson writes in his autobiography Along This Way,

“I sometimes visited Mr. Anderson at his office in the Custom House to talk over Club matters.  (I’m pretty sure this was the ‘Colored Republican Club’) These visits were generally in the afternoon, and he would at times, say, ‘You’re not in a hurry are you?  I’ll be through in a little while, and we’ll walk along and talk.’  These walks that seemed like nothing to him taxed me terribly.  His antidote for fatigue was to stop in somewhere and get a pint of champagne.  I frequently had to rebel against walking another step.  I remember that on one afternoon we started from Bowling Green and ended up at the Marie Antoinette Hotel at Broadway and 66th Street.  In one of our talks, Mr. Anderson suggested that it would be a nice thing for me to go into the United States Consular Service; he felt sure that President Roosevelt would be willing to appoint me.”

The walk from Bowling Green to the Marie Antoinette would have been a little over five miles (the hotel is long gone), so not an especially heroic walk, but a long way if you’re not ready for it, I suppose.  And I do wonder how many places there were in Manhattan at that time where a black politician could order a pint of champagne.  Perhaps quite a few.  But Anderson was right: Johnson was duly appointed a US Consul, first to Venezuela and then to Nicaragua, between 1906 and 1912: interesting times.

Despite his “rebelling” against Anderson's enforced walk, Johnson knew at least something about the pleasures of walking.  Here’s a passage about New York from his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)

“As I walked about that evening I began to feel the dread power of the city; the crowds, the lights, the excitement, the gayety and all its subtler stimulating influences began to take effect upon me. My blood ran quicker, and I felt that I was just beginning to live. To some natures this stimulant of life in a great city becomes a thing as binding and necessary as opium is to one addicted to the habit. It becomes their breath of life; they cannot exist outside of it; rather than be deprived of it they are content to suffer hunger, want, pain and misery; they would not exchange even a ragged and wretched condition among the great crowd for any degree of comfort away from it.”

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