Seen / Unseen
This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
We’re safe because we cross together. Orderly white lines bisect our path from one curb to the next: equidistant, equal width, all the way across. If we walk as a mass across this slatted surface, then the people in the cars will see us better. If we stay together, and within the width, then we’ll be safe. But some of us know that there’s a delay between the light changing and the walk signal switching on, so we cross before the others, who wait, timid, balanced on the edge of the curb. And some of us follow soon after, eyes scanning the intersection and bodies overtaking those bisecting lines two, three at a time. Others, we wait for that walk signal, its light promising safety, and also justification; if we get hurt here, it’s not because we did something wrong. Reassured, we can cross leisurely, confident in the allotted length of our time. We can look down and notice how the white paint is cracked, faded, pocked with old gum coated in street dirt, made shiny by the friction of time. We can notice our own shadows, thrown before our feet by the streetlamp overhead, or seared by the sun at noon, or hazy under a sky filled white with clouds. We can notice a scar of patched pavement, cutting like an eddying current under the straight rush of the river, snaking like an island from one shore to the next. I—not “we”, but “I”—can walk along this narrow island, raised above the level of the street. And in doing this, even as I cross with everyone else—against the light with confidence; dashing, timid, to follow others; or with assurance towards that walk signal—as I cross like this, on this island, I feel alone.
Not alone, really, but conspicuous, caught out, too aware of my body, and aware, too, that others are aware. That half-inch afforded to me by the raised and springy pavement feels as high as a stage, the crooked path an unintentional diversion from the steps of others. I feel nervous as I cross, and not because I think I’ll be hit. The thing that prevents me from being hit, the thing that keeps me safe—being seen—this is the thing that makes me feel unsafe.
As that eddying island of pavement mends, it also obscures. I called it a scar, a current, said that it cuts, but it does not. Through the layers of crushed stone, gravel, sand, we’d find that those lines of white paint still exist. Though hidden, they continue unbroken all the same.
If I’m hidden, enveloped like the white lines by patched pavement, if I’m safe and unseen, I’ll still exist, too, right?