By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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I, a Jewish girl from Los Angeles, met Joe Malone, an Irish boy from Brooklyn, in an off-campus Yiddish class in Berkeley in 1962. For our first date, he invited me to a movie. There wasn’t a limo waiting at the door. There wasn’t even a run-down jalopy. We walked the one mile to the movie theater, where we saw The Hustler, starring Paul Newman. Somewhere in the middle of the movie, despite Paul Newman’s handsomeness, I fell in love with Joe Malone. We’ve been married twenty-eight years.
When we were dating, sometimes we went out to eat, other times we went to the movies, but we always walked. As we walked we talked, and we got to know each other in that deepening way that continues. In this interview, I learned things about Joe that I’d never known. It was like meeting a wonderful person for the first time.
On those early dates, we walked all around Berkeley and San Francisco, often on food quests. Once I was trying to find the perfect sugar cone; another time we were looking for the best won ton and ended up discovering hargow (Chinese shrimp dumplings). All of those early walks were magical. But we will never forget one in particular.
We had been walking all day, up in the Berkeley hills. Suddenly, we found ourselves in open country. There were purple wildflowers everywhere, and on one of them hundreds of ladybugs clustered: microcosm and macrocosm. The world stopped, our eyes opened, and as Joan Baez sings, we “both could have died then and there.”
We’ve been walking together ever since, though I poop out after about ten miles. Joe keeps on walking. He decided a long time ago that people should turn their cars into rock gardens.
Joe has always walked everywhere. He thinks cars are unnecessary. We were given two legs, and those legs were meant for walking. He walks the way birds fly and fish swim. He walks a minimum of thirty-six miles a week. He usually takes two walks a day on the days he doesn’t walk into New York City from our home in New Jersey.
I walk with him on the weekend. We head in any direction from our house, usually going on a five- to seven-mile walk in the afternoon. We walk on vacations and have explored unknown towns, from Aix-en-Provence to Gillette, Wyoming.
When we’re walking, people in cars always stop to ask directions. Not only does Joe know the directions, but if the questioners don’t speak English well, Joe, who’s studied more than seventy languages, can usually respond in their native language. He is a highly disciplined person who schedules every minute of his time: his typical day may start with reading linguistic journals, working on an Ojibwa grammar, translating Gaelic poetry, reading Dr. Zhivago in Russian, writing, cooking, or teaching. His walking may be the only time in which he isn’t programmed.
Being married to a dedicated walker does have its difficulties. When we’re invited somewhere, Joe always chooses to walk, and I have to drive alone. Whenever we’re invited somewhere new, I have to explain that Joe will be coming along on foot. People don’t understand.
“He’s walking? Why?”
I always find myself stumbling for an answer. I say, because walking is like a religion to him. Because he doesn’t believe in cars. Because he dreams about walking. Because when he’s walking he thinks about his dreams. Because he writes about his dreams when he’s walking. Because he writes papers when he’s walking. Because walking is his meditation.
Sometimes I tell people he walks because he wants to. But why does he want to? I decided to ask him.
— Pamela Altfeld Malone
PAMELA: Why do you walk?
JOE: I always liked walking, even when I was a child. When I moved back to New York and the doctor said I was overweight, I decided to start walking again. Now I walk a minimum of five miles a day. I’ve also come to detest motor vehicles, and this is one way of keeping away from them. I used to dig cars. I had a car named Uncle Mutt when I was eighteen. Then I began to notice that people go insane in cars; they become paranoid and vicious. I used to drive to Brooklyn to pick up my mother and take her back to New Jersey. As soon as I got over the Verrazano Bridge, my palms would begin to sweat.
PAMELA: Speaking of bridges, you regularly cross the George Washington Bridge to reach Barnard College, where you teach.
JOE: In 1960, the Modern Jazz Quartet gave a concert in Frankfurt, where I was stationed, and John Lewis introduced a piece called “George Washington Bridge.” He said, “Man, you’re on the bridge and you dig, and there is water, man, sea, air, sun, man, that’s George Washington Bridge.” All bridges are wonderful. Unfortunately, there’s no way to walk across some of the most wonderful bridges, like the Throgs Neck, and the Whitestone to Queens. The Verrazano Bridge is the greatest insult; the only time you can walk across it is when they have the New York City Marathon once a year. The George Washington Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge were all built early, before Americans started to get lazy and to adore cars.
PAMELA: What are you looking for when you go back to your old haunts in Brooklyn?
JOE: Henry Miller, Brooklynite par excellence, says, “Brooklyn is the place I love and hate more than any other place in the world.” When I walk through Brooklyn, I get strange feelings of recollection. It’s as if I’ve been on these streets before, under a different sun, and things have happened. An Irish Gaelic writer wrote a book about a deora, which is somebody who is disinherited, cast out, one who lives in the wild. There’s this wonderful drawing in the book of a guy with a bata — an Irish walking stick — and a backpack. He’s walking through this canyon of streets, past all kinds of topsy-turvy houses, wraithing it. He’s alone. He’s like a wraith.
PAMELA: What is “wraithing it”?
JOE: I walked to the parson’s house this Christmas Eve, a five-hour walk, seventeen miles. It was very bizarre, strange and sad, and kind of frightening, to walk along the dark streets, mile after mile after mile, all the houses lit up with Christmas decorations. It was ghostlike. I felt like a wraith. And then at the end of the line, the door opened and suddenly there was the warmth of this wonderful house and these wonderful people. It reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s story, “The Long Rain,” about the space pilot who crashes in the rain forests of Venus. He has to walk for days and days through this wet, rainy eternity until he finally gets to what they called the Sun Dome. He goes in and they’re cooking coffee — and, just like that, he plugs in again. He had been a wraith, a deora, for all that time.
PAMELA: Do all your walks involve a quest?
JOE: No, I’m not always wraithing it. Going back to Brooklyn is not exactly wraithing it. But when I was walking to this parson’s house, I began in early afternoon. It was nice and bright out, but then it got darker and darker. In the middle of the walk, it became nighttime. For humans, night is a frightening time. Pavor nocturnus — the fear of night, because once we lived in trees, and hid from predators. There were carnivores out there in the night, crepuscular and nocturnal animals. So everybody feels that, toward evening, you have to get to a safe haven. Being a wraith is much more frightening and disconcerting at night, but also more magical. On that walk to the parson’s house, I walked the same route I used to follow to visit my mother in her nursing home. That made the walk all the more potent. Here it was Christmas Eve, it was becoming dark, and I was passing the window where she used to wave goodbye to me.
PAMELA: Since you hadn’t been to the parson’s house before, how did you plan the time? How did you know it was going to take five hours? When you’re invited somewhere, you’re expected to arrive on time.
JOE: I know reference points. I know how long it takes me to walk from here to our Japanese friends’ in Riveredge. So I simply measured the distance on the map with one of those little wheel thingamajigs, did a little simple proportional algebra, and worked out precisely how long it would take.
PAMELA: I went by car; it normally takes half an hour, but I happened to drop my keys in the trunk of the car, and I had to wait for a policeman to get them out, so I arrived ten minutes late. You arrived on time. Are you ever afraid of getting lost?
JOE: I’m not afraid of getting lost, but I’m afraid the world might end. Remember, you had your automobile accident right before Christmas. Here it was, Christmas Eve, and I could have been a widower.
PAMELA: Because I was in a car?
JOE: You almost got killed by a moron on the turnpike. Yes.
PAMELA: What is your feeling when you ride in a vehicle?
JOE: It’s like a flyby past a planet. You fly by the planet at ninety-three thousand miles, and that’s as close as you get. In a vehicle, I feel like a tourist who’s insulated from what’s really going on by the guides who bring me there. Tourists don’t learn the language or the culture of a country, they don’t meet the people, they don’t go out and walk. The best way to see a foreign place — and a foreign place could be a town five miles from you, it doesn’t have to be across the sea — is just to get out and start walking. If you have a map in your pocket, which I usually do, so much the better. But don’t use the map. Not yet. Use it later, to get back. In the meantime, just follow your nose. If you see something that looks invigorating, exhilarating, and wondrous, follow it. Likewise, you see places that are somehow sinister.
PAMELA: You amaze your friends by going to neighborhoods that are supposed to be dangerous.
JOE: I’m a native New Yorker. I was born in Greenwich Village and raised in Brooklyn. I don’t live in New York now, but I still work there, and I consider it my goddamned right to go anywhere I want in the city. I’ve got to watch out — if a place looks dangerous, or people look dangerous, then I’m going to steer clear. But not on principle.
PAMELA: Tell me about a neighborhood that is considered dangerous, though you find it exciting.
JOE: Harlem, for one. I don’t consider 125th Street, the main street in Harlem, dangerous at all. Of course, you’ve got to be careful; there’s a lot of racial animosity in the city right now. If you stand out in any way, say if you’re black in a white neighborhood, or vice versa, then you’ve got to be cool. If you’re a female on top of that, you’ve got to be extra careful. But on balance, 125th Street is a very interesting street. It’s one of the most important African-American centers in the world.
PAMELA: You went through Bedford Stuyvesant — where it looks like the aftermath of a war — on your Henry Miller pilgrimage.
JOE: When Henry Miller died, I decided to do something in honor of this great man. So I went by foot and subway — mainly by foot, but for the longer stretches, by subway — to various locales in his books. It was interesting to juxtapose his descriptions of them from the thirties and forties — though some went back to his memories from the 1890s — with what’s there now. So I swung out to Myrtle Avenue, right where Brooklyn spills into Queens, and found a fire escape loaded with stuffed animals. That was great. It was windy, twenty degrees, and I ended up in some devastated neighborhood in Brooklyn. Suddenly there’s this vacant lot with all these weird artifacts. The smell of catsup is everywhere. I begin to take notes. I take off my gloves and I’m writing like a madman. It was a totally inspiring scene. It’s funny, because sight is probably the most important sense for walking, but hearing and smell aren’t far behind. There are sounds and smells that can knock you out.
PAMELA: You’ve been talking about your urban walking, but you live in a small New Jersey town, and you also do a lot of suburban walking.
JOE: They’re both nice. Though I was born in Greenwich Village and raised in Brooklyn, I spent the early part of my childhood in a small New Jersey town. We moved to Brooklyn when we lost our little house in suburbia. It was downhill for my father after that. Suburbia evokes a feeling of loss in me, a time of visiting green yards and richer relatives. Sometime after the war, maybe around 1946, my parents and I were out looking at a community they were building. It was on Long Island, and my father couldn’t afford the down payment on one of those houses, so we came back to the city on the train very depressed. Suburban walking is, for me, the most magical, because it recalls these feelings of belonging, and then loss.
PAMELA: Do you think creatively when you walk? Your poems are very rhythmic. I wonder if the rhythm of your walking influences the rhythm of your poems.
JOE: I never thought of that; it’s very likely. Walking is a great vehicle for doing certain things. I have memorized poems of established writers while walking. I translated the poetry of the Gaelic poet, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. I do other things, too. I’ve written linguistic papers in my head while walking. I work out mathematical problems. I’ve read calculus books, geometry books, books on set theory. There’s a broad range of things to which walking lends itself.
People talk about walking as if it’s unusual. They say they haven’t got the time for it. A lot of people do have the time for it, but they spend their time in foolish ways — like driving cars.
PAMELA: You walk in all kinds of weather — it could be eight below — yet you wear a very thin jacket. You walk in the coldest weather, you walk in the hottest weather, you walk in the rain. Tell me about walking and the weather.
JOE: There are limits. The big enemy in walking is the wind — the winter wind. Conditions can be too bad to walk. At times like that, just to get in my quota, I walk around the block twenty-five times. But usually the weather doesn’t stop me.
PAMELA: Are there special sensations when you walk in treacherous weather? Is there something orgasmic about being in the middle of a thunderstorm? Is it exciting?
JOE: No, it’s annoying.
PAMELA: When you go on a five- or six-hour walk, what do you do about relieving yourself?
JOE: You duck in a bush.
PAMELA: When you travel, you like to explore cities. You get up very early and go on long walks. What’s it like walking in a strange city?
JOE: Though I do get up early, that’s not the best time of day to walk. The best time is in the middle of the day, because there are no people around early in the morning. In Paris, when you walk early in the morning, everything’s shuttered up. You walk a couple of hours later, and all these great stores are open and people are walking around.
PAMELA: From the time your sons could walk, you’ve taken them on walks.
JOE: I used to walk to the park with them. We often walked to eateries. There was a truck stop that had great hot dogs. We called it the hot-dog restaurant. These were in the days before we became vegetarians.
I got a taste for walking from my father. We used to go to places like Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts. We’d spend the whole day walking. When I was little, two and a half or three, I walked away from my home in Glen Ridge, New Jersey and ended up at the train station. I tried to get a ticket to go to Florida and pick oranges. The cops brought me back on a motorcycle. I walked back there last June. I think I found the train station. Now it’s a kind of mall.
PAMELA: So even as a young child, you were a confident walker. How would you describe yourself today?
JOE: There’s a picture in an old Mad magazine of this cat walking down the street, with a broad-brimmed hat and a waxed mustache and peg-top pants, and he’s just walking, he’s digging it, digging the air, digging life, walking.
Pamela Altfeld Malone