I truly love living in a city (or at least within shouting distance of one). Yes, its noisy, the traffic is atrocious, and its hard to find personal space when you are out and about, but a city is so varied, so multi-layered, so full of stories and textures that it can attain an almost magical quality if you look at it the right way. Read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and you’ll see what I mean. He understood that what we think of as one city, as a single organism is actually many worlds, all crammed together, all coexisting. Some of these worlds are obvious and some can only been seen in the right light or when you are in the right mood.
I grew up in suburbia and for me cities were once places where one went on vacation….as some people go on safari. You gawk, you keep a map close at hand, and when you leave, its almost with a sigh of relief. Oh yes, I’d say, I love to visit, but I could never LIVE there. So when I first moved to Boston for Grad school about 7 years ago, I was so terrified, that I literally didn’t leave my apartment for several days. I sensed that the city was a beast, that it wanted to absorb me, digest me, and I wasn’t ready to give myself up to something bigger than myself that I couldn’t understand. But over the years I learned how to do just that and it was only then that I was able to see past the big picture and pick out the tiny facets beneath.
I’m writing about this now because of one of these tiny facets that I noticed last week, the type of little incident that seems unimportant but manages to tenaciously stick in your mind.
When I was working in the South End, I used to take the commuter rail into South Station early every morning. Right before the train heads into the station, it crosses a sort of wasteland of access roads, construction sites, and rusted heaps of metal. Every time I passed through this spot on my morning commute, my eye was caught by the same thing; a sort of make-shift dog house sitting right there in the middle of this industrial dumping ground. It was really no more than a box with a small door cut out of it, and there was often a bowl for food or water placed out front. I always wondered what sort of creature lived there, but never gave it more than idle speculation. Then, several weeks ago I was taking the train into downtown on a shopping trip and saw that the house was gone. Suddenly I felt very very sad…, as if instead of a mystery being solved, it had simply been blotted out. I was surprised how much this little bit of a story and its disappearance had affected me. A few days later I was again riding the train, and there it was, a brand new house, this one very obviously hand crafted. Sitting next to it was a large grey Persian cat.
It sounds silly I know, but the sight of a domestic cat, out there in a place that is the closest to the middle of nowhere that you can come to in a city, was almost shocking to me. I thought wow….this is it, this is the animal that has been living here all these years. Someone that works on the trains saw this animal, fed it, built a home for it, and has cared for it all this time….and probably very few other people are even aware of its existence. It is tied to the city as much as the train, the station, all the other large blatant parts of Boston are, but it exists in another world that can only be seen if you are looking for it. It made me wonder….how many other things are living and happening that I don’t know about. Things in odd corners, in back alleys, or maybe even right out in front of me? This is what it is to be part of a city, I mused,….it’s a constant discovery, an eternal exploration. Who knows what those canyons and jungles of cement and steel have to offer. I guess that’s why its so important to always fight for the window seat on the train. ;-)