I bet I’ve stumbled on an uneven sidewalk hundreds of times — more likely, thousands of times — in my lifetime. So why do I feel a special humiliation whenever this commonplace blunder occurs?
The scenario is always the same. I’m shuffling along, mind wandering as I check out the scenery, and the next thing I know my toes catch on an uneven section of sidewalk and I’m pitching forward, herky jerky, looking like a bad vaudeville entertainer attempting some crude form of physical comedy. Oh, and there’s almost always someone getting ready to pass by, usually an elegant, graceful person striding purposefully ahead, who can smirk and chuckle inwardly at my ineptitude.
Whenever this happens, my cheeks and ears inevitably burn with shame. Why? No one wants to look like a clumsy fool, of course, but I do clumsy things all the time — whether it’s stubbing my toe on the bed frame or toppling a soda can or taking a bite of a sandwich and getting mustard on my tie. I also don’t think it’s the public aspect of it, either. I’ve knocked over bottles and glasses in restaurants without feeling that deep sense of mortification that I experience when one of those all-too-common sidewalk stumbles occurs.
I think the real reason is that walking is so very basic. It’s one of the first things we learn to do as infants, the building block for all of the higher motor skills like trotting, or skipping, or jumping. I was a late walker, so the embarrassment factor may go back to the fact that it took me a ridiculously long time to get the knack of balancing on my feet and putting one in front of the other without falling. Inwardly, I know that if you can’t walk down the sidewalk without almost going face first onto the pavement, you are showing that you lack the most fundamental form of coordination. You might as well go back to crawling.