Monday, July 11, 2011
Most of what I know of cities comes from books. I suppose this is what books are for: exposure to places (and people, and things) that we've had little chance to see for ourselves. Unless you count Atlanta; I lived in Atlanta for a couple of years. Plus a few summers. But Atlanta is a city only if cities are defined by long highways static with traffic, and constant air conditioning, and radios stolen from Jeeps. There must have been good things about Atlanta. I do recall with a warm feeling a movie theater that played not-new movies and a used bookstore right beside it perfect for wasting the half hour or so before the not-new movies started. And I once had an amazing brunch at a restaurant on Peachtree St. But, jeez, the roaches? The smell of garbage in the summer? The careful blankness of almost every face? I remember Atlanta as a place waiting to sneer at me.
When I was 18 I was pretty sure that New York City was where I was supposed to end up. Instead I went to western Mass. And then Atlanta. And then New Hampshire, where my road is dirt and I know nearly every car that passes the house. This morning a guy named Dave who lived in his truck for a while and rarely wears a shirt when it's warm turned up at our door at 7:30 with two fish he'd caught on a fishing trip with his dad. This is not a guy you'd mistake for someone with a retirement account, but there he was, bearing fish. Does this happen in cities? It must. Maybe not with fish, but with something, right? Like, art work? Fine wine? Country mice and city mice can't be that different.
Maybe when I'm gray and creaky I'll move to a city and shock my poor children, who'll worry about me riding the subways alone and climbing all those stairs to my apartment. I'll be one of those women who brandishes her cane whenever she feels the hint of threat, who carries mace in each coat pocket and calls the police at least once a week to report a suspicious stranger on the fire escape. More likely I'll be oblivious to even the obvious dangers. Probably I'll find myself wedged in an open manhole within hours of my arrival. Because I'll be looking up at all the concrete mountains instead of down at the street.
L'Engle's New York, Byatt's London, Fox's New Orleans - these are the cities I want to see. The real places have always been pastel in comparison whenever I've had the chance to visit. But so have corresponding countrysides. I'd like to vow that next time I visit a city I'll discard all those expectations bred from literary sampling. But I've read too much. I've gone too far. Those two-dimensional cities are bound forever to their real-life counterparts. I'm a country mouse at heart, but I do plan on more visits to bustling cities where food can delivered to your door (swoon) once my babies aren't quite so attached to my legs. Because it's awful difficult to slip through a subway turnstile with boys hanging from your waist.
Driving down to Boston a few weeks ago, my friend was in the passenger seat navigating. She consulted the map, advised me to turn at the stoplight, not knowing we would be going the wrong way down a one way street. I waited for the cars to pass and then quickly turned us around. She marveled at my calm exterior and remarked that I had my City Face on. I knew just what she meant. Somehow entering an area with tall buildings, a place with many people passing by on the streets, traffic and an industrial hum in the air, just arouses something inside of me. Another self I didn’t know existed.
When I worked in the World Trade Center there were definitely times I needed my City Arms. Arms to hold my pregnant self steady as the bus rounded a corner. And many muscles were often needed to lug the new baby up four flights of stairs to our attic apartment while carrying groceries or laundry. As a firsttime mom I couldn’t ever bring myself to leave him alone, so he traveled down with me each time, while I grabbed another bag or basket for the return trip up. Now that he’s taller than I am, I often wish for those days when he was small enough to fit into a car seat.
Visiting Venice required City Feet. My friend and I were only there for a day, but we made the most of it. We spent the morning walking every street and crossing each bridge multiple times in search of a certain man who made tiny glass animals. We finally found him, then we walked around trying to decide on the perfect place for lunch and then spent the afternoon looking for a glass ring. When I laid my eyes on that particular shade of cobalt blue I knew I had found the one. At day’s end, we walked back to the train station and headed out for the next adventure.
I’ve only been to Paris once, but it was a week I will always remember. The moment I set foot in the city, I was instantly reminded of my time living in New York. It was much more urban than I had ever imagined. All of that time spent lovingly poring over pictures in books and magazines, I felt like I knew what to expect. Yet it’s not gallery or a collection of places just quietly waiting for someone to notice them. Paris is a vibrant, light filled, densely populated place. There is an intensity there that I miss living here in Vermont. It may be that when I visited, I left some of my City Heart behind. Maybe someday I’ll go back and claim it.
To be honest, there is something about all cities that I love. People living side by side, and a diversity of population that is lacking here. In a city most of what one needs for day-to-day living can be found within walking distance. Tiny shops like the aptly name “Just Rugelach” are right outside your office window. Tall, tall buildings created from an architect’s vision soar into the sky. Often they are a testament to the men who painstakingly built them up from nothing. I think what I miss most about living there is the chance to walk down the busy sidewalks while keeping my eyes directed upward-- not looking down for fear of missing a graceful cornice or a unique window.
When I worked in New York I once went with some friends to the very top of our building. It is one of my very fondest memories. We made or way through a small (I like to think secret) passageway to gaze out at the city and the lights below. We were so high I’m sure we could have almost reached out and touched the clouds.
Next week's word: Square