I picked up an envelope that had to be hand-delivered and stalked out of the building. I was in one of those moods where you are so frustrated you forget where you are for long stretches of time, carrying on imaginary conversations in which you try so hard to defend or explain yourself that you even start talking out loud without realizing it. I was doing exactly that when I heard a quiet, firm voice say, “That’s a poor walk, young man.”
I stopped in my tracks. Was it in my head or did somebody actually talk to me? I turned around and saw an extremely old man wearing a black felt hat, a full-length black wool coat and black shoes polished to a mirror finish. He was standing in front of the library as if waiting for someone to pick him up. He stood ramrod-straight had his gaze fixed directly in front of him.
“Did you say something to me?” I asked.
He turned his head and looked me straight in the eye.
“I did. I said, ‘That’s a poor walk, young man.’ ”
He seemed to expect me to shrug and walk off. But there was something eerily sane about him, and this intrigued me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What I mean is, you are walking on the balls of your feet and bouncing. It’s not attractive; it’s not the way a man should walk. A man should walk deliberately, first on the heels, then onto the balls of the feet, keeping his back straight, head erect, and moving smoothly.”
For a second I felt of wave of annoyance pass through me. Old coot, I ought to ask him if he still remembers what it was like to walk on the balls of his feet. Then I thought, Maybe he’s senile. This made me feel sorry for him. But then I looked at him again and saw that clearly he wasn’t saying it to annoy me, and he didn’t seem particularly concerned whether I took him seriously or not. Eerie.
“Can you show me what you mean?” I asked him.
“Yes.” He demonstrated, first by imitating me, then by walking properly. This fellow had real presence.
Oh, what the hell. I walked in front of him a few times, trying to imitate his broper walk until he was satisfied. Then I said, “Can I ask you why you would bother to tell me this, though?'”
“Because you might not realize it if someone didn’t tell you. A man looks more like a man if he holds himself confidently, moves smoothly and acts deliberately. And you’ll find that if you hold yourself that way, you’ll begin to act that way.”
I must not have looked convinced because finally he grinned and added, “I taught at West Point for over thirty years. There’s my daughter now, Good luck, son. Stay off the balls of your feet.”
Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, Mark Salzman