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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


And speaking of walking down the street looking at “girls,” I’ll bet you’re familiar with the Jonathan Richman, Modern Lovers song “Pablo Picasso.”  The lyrics run:

Well some people try to pick up girls
And get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare and
So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole

I suspect there’s some truth lurking there amid the absurdity.  There probably was a time when Picasso could pick up girls while walking in any street.  On the other hand he does seem to get called an asshole pretty often these days, for one reason or another.

         Now, here’s a thing. Pablo Picasso certainly wrote some poetry, and if you go online you’ll find a poem of his “A Lonely Road is That I Walked,” a title which has surely lost something in the translation.  It runs as follows:

I walk a lonely road, the one and only one I’ve ever known.

I don’t know where it goes, but I keep walking on and on.

I walked the lonely and untrodden road for I was walking on the bridge

of the broken dreams.

I don’t know what the world is fighting for or why I am being instigated.

It’s for this that I walk this lonely road for I wish to be

So I am breaking up, breaking up.

It is the lack of self control that I feared as there is something

Inside me that pulls the need to surface, consuming, confusing.

being called weird I walk this lonely road on the verge of broken dreams.

And so I walk this lonely road and so just keep walking still

Now, if you’re at all familiar with the band Green Day, you’ll see these words are dead ringers for the lyrics to their (really piss poor if you ask me) song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”  Did they use Picasso’s lyrics?  Were they inspired by them?  They Internet is silent on the subject.  Or is it some Internet hoax pretending that Picasso wrote lyrics just like Green Day?  I have no idea, but I’d like to know.

Meanwhile I’m glad Picasso didn’t give up his day job.  Here’s a painting better than any of the great man’s words: it’s titled “Couple Walking” (Couple Voyant).

Incidentally, I believe Jonathan Richman wrote the greatest ever lyrics about the difference between walking and driving, in (some versions of) “Radio On,”  better than anything by Picasso, and certainly better than anything by Green Day.

I walked by the Stop n shop

Then I drove by the stop n shop

I liked that much better than walking by the Stop n shop

Cause I had the radio on

Below is Mr Picasso, walking but not picking up many girls.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


I was meeting somebody outside the Hollywood and Western subway station - a fairly unHollywood thing to do.  That's the exterior above, and the interior below.  There have been times when that location has had a bad vibe about it – I’ve been known to refer to it as “disaffected shouty youth corner” since there often seem to be groups of disaffected shouty youth hanging out there. 

On this day things were quiet on the corner itself and although the area isn’t especially pedestrian-friendly there were a lot of people on foot crossing Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue, and being the kind of person I am, while I waited I was people-watching, observing the various gaits, postures and walking styles.

And I saw a very tall, thin, elegant, black-haired woman walking across the street.  She was striking rather than pretty or glamorous, and obviously eye-catching since my eye was definitely caught.  She was wearing very high heels and when she got closer I saw that the tops of her feet were heavily tattooed.  I accept that there are evils lurking in the male gaze, but I am only flesh and blood, and I did find myself gazing.

She obviously noticed me looking, and she looked back, and it was a strange look, very encouraging in a way but somehow I wasn’t encouraged.  It just wasn’t the kind of look  that women use to look back at men, even at men they like.  And I thought, rightly or wrongly, oh no, she’s a professional, my male gaze has been attracted by the promise of commercial sex.  Perhaps not every man on Hollywood Boulevard would have averted his eyes, but I did. 

By now she was fairly close to where I was standing and I looked up again and suddenly saw, and I suppose I could have been wrong again, but I really don’t think I was, that this was actually a dude

My change of assessment from striking woman, to female prostitute to male prostitute had been amazingly swift.  And I couldn’t say that this kind of thing ONLY happens in Hollywood, but it did seem to be the kind of thing that people EXPECT to happen in Hollywood. 

Fans of walking and Hollywood movies may also be aware that in Spike Jonze’s Her Joaquin Phoenix (that’s his back, above) finds the Hollywood and Western subway stop very convenient for the beach, which in reality is some twenty odd miles away, and not currently served by the subway.  Ah, the magic of the movies.

Monday, February 2, 2015


If you have some reputation as a walker, a lot of people assume you can’t or don’t or won’t drive.   In my own case this isn’t true.  As I often say (in fact I’ve said it so often I’m not absolutely sure I mean it anymore), “I love driving.  It’s parking that I hate.”

On the other hand I really do like walking in parking lots (that’s car parks to my English readers).  It feels vaguely transgressive to walk in a place that’s designed for cars not for walkers, although of course people have to walk at least a short distance once they’ve found their parking spot.

And of course most people want that parking spot to be as close as possible to the exit or to the store they’ve parked in front of.  I try to have the best of both worlds by parking in some distant, empty spot so that even though I’ve driven to a place I still get to do a certain amount of walking; a small thing, but my own.

I’ve discussed Ed Ruscha elsewhere on this blog, and I don’t know what his walking habits are, but since he published an artist’s book titled Thirtyfour Parking Lots I think we do know a little about his attitude to parking lots: detached, ironic, blank, subversive, romanticizing the mundane. 

And I did just read an interview with him that originally appeared in Ruscha and Photography.  Sylvia Wolf asks, “Was the idea of mapping a motivating factor in your work?  I see this in Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967) and Ruscha replies.  “The first pictures I made of the Sunset Strip were taken by walking along the street. Only when I could see that it didn’t produce works that I approved of … did I decide I should maybe try something with a motorized camera.  That’s how that idea was born: with Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles when I realized that I wanted aerial photographs of downtown.  I thought, wouldn’t it be great of they were professional pictures.”  He went up in a helicopter with the photographer Art  Alanis.  He continues, “It was astounding that, for less than five hundred dollars, we went out in a helicopter one Sunday morning – Sunday being the proper day because all the parking lots are empty – and photographed all these works in a matter of maybe an hour and a half or something.  You can cover a lot of ground in an hour and a half in a helicopter.”

To be fair not every one of Ruscha’s lots is completely and utterly empty, a vehicle pops up here and there, but even so they’re some of the most denuded parking lots I’ve ever seen.  You definitely can’t see any people walking in them either but maybe we’d be too high to see them even if they were there.

Empty and abandoned parking lots are wonderfully attractive, and of course perfect for the perverse pedestrian.  It’s even better if the lot is attached to a business that’s no longer functioning.  The cars are gone and nature reasserts itself trough the tarmac.

 Thanks to Google earth the parking lot enthusiast can easily make any number of faux Ruscha images, although generally there are plenty of cars visible.  Here’s the parking structure at the Arclight Theater on Sunset Boulevard:

Here’s the parking lot at my local Vons supermarket:

And here’s lot at the LA Zoo:

I became unwillingly reacquainted with the parking lot at LA Zoo just last week.  I was driving up the 5 Freeway when my car started madly overheating and by the time I got to the exit and found the zoo lot (much emptier than in the pic above) the small quantity of coolant that remained in the reservoir was boiling fiercely.
        I coasted to a halt in an empty part of the lot, and called the AAA who said they’d send out a tow truck.  While I waited I paced up and down the lot, but it wasn’t exactly “real” walking, and then a cop in a truck pulled up to see what I was doing.  He could see that the car hood was up and he seemed pretty sympathetic (I guess cops who work the zoo beat don’t get too embittered) and he said he’d send the AAA man in my direction if he saw him.
         And then, in one of those “Only in L.A. moments” he said, “Wait a minute.  Don’t I know you?  Don’t I know your face?  Are you an actor?”
         I said I wasn’t.
         “Well in that case, did I ever arrest you for something?”
         How we laughed.

The tow truck came, my car ended up in a repair shop in Glendale where it would have to stay overnight, and I had to find a way of getting home, which was about ten miles away.  I knew the route pretty well and had walked every section of it at one time or another and so I set off walking.  And after I’d been going for a short while, in considerable heat, not dressed for it, in shoes that weren’t good for walking, I suddenly thought, “Are you insane?”  And then I saw a bus that said “Hollywood” on the front and I got on.  In fact the bus didn’t go all the way to my part of Hollywood so I still ended up walking a couple of miles, which somehow seemed appropriate, the end of a thoroughly imperfect day.  And of course my car remained, parked (as it were) since it wasn’t going anywhere, in a repair shop ten miles from home.  From above it would have looked much like this (not really impressive enough to be a Ruscha).

Thursday, January 29, 2015


I knew a few mathematicians when I was at university.  They were wonderfully strange and generally not very happy people, though I hardly knew a representative sample.  The mathematics faculty was notorious for being a sort of playroom: very serious people sitting around staring into space or playing three-dimensional chess, and then one of them would say “Ah, I’ve had a thought about the scaling limits of critical Ising correlation functions in planar domains,” then get up and jot down a few equations and this would be a good day’s work.  In some cases it might be a good year’s work.  The whole place looks like a funhouse these days:

I never met a mathematician who was much of a walker, but now thanks to an article in the New Yorker, by Alec Wilkinson, I know about Yitang Zhang – a Chinese-born American mathematician who’s done some genius-level work on prime number theory, who is also something of a walker.

Although Zhang was thoroughly trained as a mathematician, with a PhD from Purdue, he nevertheless spent many years outside of academia, doing various bum jobs: delivery man for a New York restaurant, working in a motel in Kentucky, and in a Subway sandwich shop, before doing his great work, formalized in a paper titled “Bounded Gaps Between Primes” which won him a bunch of prizes including a MacArthur “genius” grant and enabling him to become a professor at the University of New Hampshire.

In the New Yorker article Wilkinson asked Zhang if he was ever frustrated in those “missing” years. and he replied, “I was tired.  But many times I just feel peaceful. I like to walk and think. This is my way. My wife would see me and say, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m working, I’m thinking.’ She didn’t understand.”

Wilkinson also tells us about Zhang’s current situation, “Outside his office is a long corridor that he likes to walk up and down. Otherwise, he walks outside.” You can see why he might stick with a tried and trusted method since his great mathematical breakthrough came while he was walking.

He was visiting his friend Jacob Chi, a music professor, in Pueblo, Colorado, a visit on which he taught Chi’s son calculus.  Wilkinson writes, “Zhang had planned a break from work in Colorado, and hadn’t brought any notes with him. On July 3rd, he was walking around the Chis’ back yard. ‘We live in the mountains, and the deer come out, and he was smoking a cigarette and watching for the deer,’ Chi said. ‘No deer came,’ Zhang said. ‘Just walking and thinking, this is my way.’ For about half an hour, he walked around at a loss.”

And then came the breakthrough, a theorem that proves there are an infinite number of prime pairs that differ by some number N, and that N is less than 70 million.  I think that’s the deal, anyway.

There is a documentary about Zhang by George Csicsery titled Counting From Infinity which shows Zhang walking, and to be fair sometimes not walking.

Of course, Zhang’s is a great story because it’s about a genius who spent a some time in the wilderness and then returned in triumph.  From what I know of mathematicians, quite a few of them walk in the opposite direction.