The Champlain Valley Senior Center is a good place to meet women. I won't be officially retired until 2049 - but hey, it doesn't hurt to plan ahead.
It's May 11, one of the year's warmest days yet. I'm here for a "neighborhood assessment walk." Cosponsored by the Vermont chapter of AARP and the Burlington Livable Community Project, the event aims to evaluate Burlington's walkability - the condition of sidewalks and crossings, the general "aesthetics" - to see whether the city meets the needs of an aging population. So far, about a dozen seniors, mostly women, are gathered here in the carpeted conference room, trying on red AARP T-shirts and eating banana muffins. The latter taste like banana flavoring. But who's complaining?
Not me. But if I were a city planner, I'd be plenty concerned. According to 2000 census figures, Vermont was one of only four states nationwide whose "baby boomers" comprised more than 30 percent of its total population. A 2006 report by Westford-based Northern Economic Consulting estimates that Vermont will add 93,000 seniors to its ranks over the next 25 years. Someone of my twentysomething demographic might not think of a crumbly sidewalk as cause for alarm. But for seniors, it can spell a broken hip, or worse.
For a few minutes, the other walkability assessors mill around the breakfast buffet. They all seem to know each other. I'm thinking, Just act casual, scarf another free muffin.
Soon enough, a woman approaches me. She's wearing white shoes, reflective blue shades, and a hat adorned with clusters of fake berries.
"I bet you're young and handsome enough to open this bottle of spring water for me," she says.
I blush and twist off the cap. Then I say, "So what brings you here?"
Stupid question! Of course I know.
But before we have a chance for further chat, Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, our silver-haired, Capri-panted leader, announces it's time to get started. I climb into a Saab station wagon with two, fortysomething AARP volunteers, and we head for Burlington High School - the launching area of our assessment walk.
From the back seat, I notice that the trees on North Street are starting to bud. I also notice that both women in front have highlights in their hair. Our driver, Ada Bagalio, wears jeans, sneaks and gold earrings. She's kinda sporty, I guess, in a non-athletic way. Riding shotgun is her co-worker Philene Taormina, an AARP lobbyist. She's wearing Chaco sandals, quasi-bohemian necklaces and oval-shaped green sunglasses. "This car has too many buttons!" says Taormina, evidently a Luddite. "I haven't figured this out," she adds, pushing one.
"What, too much AC?" asks Bagalio.
"Yeah. I don't like AC."
These women sound a little like my late grandmother, I think as we pull into the BHS parking lot. Then Bagalio jokes that we should've all gone to the beach together instead of walking around Burlington, inspecting sidewalks. Taormina laughs and responds, "If only!" I just smile politely.
Once the rest of the gang is assembled and hydrated, Wallace-Brodeur leads us across the street and northward. With all the fanfare, you'd think we were headed on safari. But as I quickly learn, we're only traveling about 200 yards, round trip. Every few minutes, Wallace-Brodeur stops to ask us a series of questions.
"What kind of material is the sidewalk made of?"
"Are there depressions that cause water to form puddles or freeze in winter?"
"Are any intersections with marked/ striped crosswalks difficult to cross?"
"If no, are marked/striped crosswalks needed between intersections?"
Most of our answers are either "yes" or "N/A." Bagalio runs ahead with a stopwatch, timing the traffic lights. Meanwhile, traffic thunders by on North Avenue. We're the only walkers here. Taking in our clipboards and matching shirts, passersby might mistake us for an intergenerational gang of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Any assessment of walkability in this neighborhood is almost a joke. Taormina explains that, according to a recent survey of residents in several Burlington neighborhoods, New North Enders are least likely use their own two feet to get around. Part of that has to do with physical location - it's about 2 and half miles to downtown from BHS. But walkability also depends on other, less obvious, factors, such as the presence of "green belts" - traffic-ese for "strips of grass separating road from sidewalk."
The woman with a fake-berry hat lags behind the group, announcing her disappointment with this or that stretch of sidewalk. I slow down to walk alongside her. At one juncture, I see that depressions have caused water to form and puddles to freeze. The result? Dozens of mini potholes. I practically stumble just looking at them.
"Whoo-hoo!" she calls to Wallace-Brodeur, motioning toward the violation.
"What, a tripping hazard?" Wallace-Brodeur asks.
"There's no crosswalk, either," notes another woman.
"You really can't cross anywhere," Taormina adds.
"I guess they don't bother to walk here," says the berry lady wryly. "This is a fancy part of town. They don't walk."
I like her populist spunk. As we make our way down the block, I find out that her name is Carol Lehman Winfield, and that she's "practically 89" years old.
I drop a few icebreakers. Has she always lived in Burlington?
No way. Before this, she lived in New York for 30 years, where she worked at the Metropolitan Opera, among other places. But that's only half her story. A few years ago, Winfield wrote a book called Yoga in the Morning, Martini at Night. "It's all about how much fun it is to grow old," she says, taking my arm. "You can get it on Amazon."
"I just might, Carol," I say. "But what's it like to grow old here in Burlington, with obstacles like these to deal with?" I point to our next crossing - the Route 127 exit ramp.
"All the old people I know say the same thing: The transportation and walking is terrible," she explains. "It's only recently that I've begun to appreciate AARP and what they're doing with the community."
"Me, too," I say.
"I think it's so important that citizens rally around this issue," she adds.
"But are they?"
"Well," she admits, "We're so 'green-conscious' here. But how many of these cars have just one person in them?"
The 127 exit-ramp crossing is like pedestrian purgatory - maybe the most dangerous slice of pavement between New York and Montréal. Pre-existing safety markings have faded. Drivers can barely see where they're going. And even if they can, they're not expecting any walkers to cross the road.
"Look at the yellow sign," Wallace-Brodeur says gravely, pointing across the way. The sign has a picture of an imperiled stick-figure man.
"I don't know what that means," Taormina admits.
"Those kinds of signs are largely ignored," another woman adds - as if a more assured stick man would change anything.
Wallace-Brodeur tells us, "When I get off this exit ramp, I'm usually going 35, 40 miles per hour."
"That's not even fast," I point out. "You should see some of these youngsters motor around in their roadsters."
What if I die in this crosswalk? I think suddenly. And I've never even been to the opera.
"Are we gonna attempt a crossing?" Taormina asks in a quavering voice. "I can't even tell if we're supposed to!"
Everyone stalls, waiting for someone else to go first. No way I'm volunteering.
Then Bagalio goes for it, and the rest of us follow. At our halfway point, a shiny Volvo begins to whip around the corner, and we all shriek like minors at a horror-film festival. "A car's coming! A car's coming!" Bagalio screams, waving her stopwatch. "Come on, come on, ducklings!" I don't have a chance to think about how strange that sounds: Winfield strong-arms me to safety, just in time. The Volvo has a sticker that reads, "Baby on Board."
Moments later, Winfield and I sit down to rest on a concrete wall with Taormina and Bagalio. It's getting close to lunchtime, and the traffic seems to be metastasizing. Still no other walkers anywhere. Three construction workers eye us suspiciously, as if they've never seen anyone on these sidewalks before. I'm not looking forward to the next crossing.
"Ooh, I get so sweaty when I run!" Bagalio complains.
No one says anything for a while after that.
Then Bagalio turns to Winfield. "I do yoga, too, you know," she says. "I had sciatica problems. Five minutes a day: That's all it takes."
"I do Bikram," Taormina asserts, brushing her hair behind her glasses.
"Five minutes a day? That's all you do?" Winfield says to Bagalio.
What a woman, I think.
Yogariffic Winfield must be an exception to the whole aging thing. I've never met anyone over 75 with this much energy, so I'm not surprised when she explains that she doesn't live in the New North End but in swinger-friendly downtown. She only came on this walk out of civic obligation. "I can't give money," she says. "This is the way I can give back to this wonderful city."
After crossing - safely - at the intersection of North and Saratoga, we start back toward BHS on the western side of the street. The sidewalks look much better here. But Wallace-Brodeur says wisely that a sidewalk is only as good as its worst point.
Really, says Taormina, good sidewalks are only half the battle. According to a January survey of 800 Vermont baby boomers, she explains, eight out of 10 respondents said they'd like to grow old in their communities. But in order to make that possible, local cities and towns should design more ambitious public-transportation systems. "One of the saddest things I hear," Taormina notes, "is that the buses [in Vermont] don't run on holidays."
Though Winfield is "a happy camper" in her central-living situation, she asserts, "I am militant in my belief that we need to improve public transit. All over Europe, you can go anywhere in public transit."
"There's a point at which people want to give up driving because of safety," Taormina suggests. "It's a huge loss of freedom."
"[Older people] just don't go out in winter," Wallace-Brodeur adds, as we approach the BHS parking lot.
Indeed, even Winfield admits that she feels the strain sometimes. "I can't drive anymore, and it confines me," she tells us. "But if we had buses that ran every 15 minutes . . ."
I can't quite make out her last phrase, on account of the traffic.