“The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City” (2013), chronicled Professor Helmreich’s experiences over four years — and many pairs of Rockports — walking virtually every city block, all 121,000, totaling 6,163 miles. Chatting with strangers, he unearthed a cornucopia of colorful city sidelights; he even once approached members of the street gang the Bloods outside a Bronx housing project and asked them where he could buy one of their red jackets.
This is how he explained his disarming technique to the comedian Barry Mitchell for a YouTube video:
“I just say, ‘What’s that horse doing in that guy’s backyard?’, or, ‘Is this neighborhood dangerous? Can I get a good apartment for my son?’ In other words, I just start talking to people.”
Right this very instant is probably not the best moment to undertake similar adventures in your own hometown. "Social distancing" is not only wise, it's the law. However, when social distancing requirements are behind us, let's all think about what a good idea it would be if we all did more walking around, interacting with the people in neighborhoods that are not our own. Helmreich gives us the secret: "just start talking to people."
I have a very strong hunch that Helmreich's technique, if liberally applied, could provide a "talking cure," and a "walking cure" for most of what afflicts our life together. If more of us were willing to "just start talking to people," people we "don't know," I think that fact, alone, would do a lot to revive our sense of community, which is the basis upon which our democratic political process must ultimately rest.