In the universe of college student organizations and meetings, icebreakers are a necessary evil — universally hated, yet they persist in a futile attempt to personalize meetings beyond the generic name/year/pronouns/major introductions. At their best, icebreakers provide a tiny, mostly insignificant insight into the tastes and preferences of the people around you. At their worst, they tend to feel like a forced game with no real objective — a bunch of young adults sitting around naming obscure colors, their favorite ice cream flavor or the direction they face while they shower (I particularly despise this one). Who wins this game? Don’t we all lose, in our inevitably-doomed efforts to sum up the complexity of existence with a few carefully-chosen words?
Of all the icebreakers I feel strongly about, the one I hate the least is: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in the shoes you’re wearing? It has several redeeming factors. You can’t answer in a single word, there’s no default vanilla ice cream answer and, most importantly, you ideally learn something about what the person answering deems “cool.”
Plus, there’s the added benefit that I’m usually wearing my brown Blundstone boots whenever this question is asked. This allows me to tell the story of the time I went to a “very cool” drag bar in an underground warehouse in Berlin with a friend I’d just met while wearing said boots, and casually established myself as a worldly, cosmopolitan individual.
I’ve told the Berlin story many times, each time adding in a new detail: the jungle-themed karaoke room, the spontaneous game of limbo with a feather boa, the saxophone player I befriended on the 5 a.m. metro back to the hostel. The story’s become an animal of its own, an opus to a free-spirited, Europe-roaming character.
Which is why it pains me now to admit that the Berlin warehouse drag bar story might be just a wee bit disingenuous, in terms of how it represents me as an individual. It is a “very cool” story, this is true. It did also really happen. But it makes up a small percentage of the time my feet have spent in these boots.
Truth be told, since I got the boots as a Hanukkah present two years ago, the vast majority of their showtime has been not in Berlin drag bars, but on the sidewalks of Ann Arbor. They have trudged the blocks from my junior year apartment to Mason Hall. They have pounded out the path between my senior year home and Espresso Royale, my yoga studio and friends’ houses.
I’ve gotten to know the particular quirks of the Ann Arbor sidewalks — the tufts of grass poking up between the cracks, dips in the concrete that tend to flood when the snow melts, the spot on State Street near Huron where you have to tread carefully as it’s usually littered with broken glass shards.
The Ann Arbor sidewalks have gotten to know me as well. They’ve heard the conversations between my roommate and me as we walk to class, loudly airing our complaints about the world for every square of pavement to hear. The sidewalks have witnessed my panicked fast-walking when I’m running late to work, swearing out loud and promising myself I’ll never make the mistake of starting the grilled-cheese-making process so close to my clock-in time again. They’ve generously said nothing when I plug in my earbuds and listen to the same Bright Eyes album for the third time in one day, only looked on in stoic, concerned, concrete silence.
I usually call my parents when I’m walking somewhere. The 10 or 15-minute walk provides the perfect opportunity to catch up and the perfect excuse to promptly hang up: “Can’t talk about my post-grad plans right now, I’m at class, have to go, talk later, yes, love you too, bye now!” But the walk also proves the ideal place to talk freely and honestly — the sidewalks offer a certain type of privacy difficult to come by on a college campus.
Freshman year, sharing a tiny South Quad Residence Hall dorm room, the sidewalk was often the only place I could truly be by myself, in ten-minute gaps in a calendar crammed with classes and extracurriculars. Even later on in college, when I finally moved to my own room, there’s still more often than not housemates lingering in common spaces and familiar faces to run into at the library and coffee shops. They are people I love dearly and value immensely, but the overall effect can be suffocating. Time to just exist in college, without controlling the image you present to the community, is elusive.
On the pavement of the sidewalks, I’m in full view of the world, yet in a private enough space I can tell my mom about the particularly rough day I’ve had, maybe even shed a tear if I need to. I’ll pass by others, of course, but they’re all concerned with their own conversations, podcasts or playlists. The sidewalk is comforting in its impassiveness, its utilitarianism, its anonymity.
Occasionally, instead of calling up my mom or plugging in a podcast, I’ll make the daring decision to brave the walk to class distraction-free — no earbuds, no walking partner. As I trod the sidewalks, I’ll muse over a problem or distraction, bouncing my thoughts and theories off the concrete. “No,” the sidewalks will say, “you shouldn’t text that person. You should find validation through yourself.” Or “yes,” the sidewalks will say, “you should apply for that job,” and I’ll realize I’m self-sabotaging yet again. You should just go for the thing, damn it, Meghann.
The sidewalks are pretty much the only space in Ann Arbor where I can have these conversations with myself, where nothing pressing pulls at my attention — I’m not going to be doing my reading for class while walking, or applying to job positions on LinkedIn. The freedom from these distractions and obligations is desperately needed — a space where I have no obligation to be productive or sociable for the world.
Due to the University of Michigan’s size, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the sidewalks as my companion. On an average day, I’ll spend at minimum an hour in transit on the city sidewalks. I must have walked hundreds of miles by now on their paved surfaces, chronicling joy and heartbreak and love on the trek to the UGLi, No Thai or the CCRB.
The sidewalks of Ann Arbor witnessed me at my worst and loneliest, walking home late at night from the library, brimming with self-pity during the winter months of sophomore year when it felt that everyone around me had found their forever people except for me. Two years later, I tread those same squares of pavement on my way to brunch with friends that had been there since freshman year — it just took some more hours walking these sidewalks to come to this conclusion.
So here’s to the sidewalks of Ann Arbor, in all their salt-scored, crowd-trodden glory. These sidewalks certainly do not make for as good of a story as a Berlin nightclub, this is true — and I will, therefore, most definitely continue to tell my Berlin nightclub story whenever said icebreaker is proposed. But, when it comes down to it, I’ve left more of me on the pavement of these streets than I have in any club. So this is an ode to the concrete squares that have been my loyal companions — or, perhaps more aptly, to the person that’s walked and cried and laughed and grown on these sidewalks of Ann Arbor these past four years.