These nights on Oahu (March '07) are windy and cool and often starless. When rain clouds hang so low over street lamps that they collect on them a dirty mud color at night, this feels like City. Cities aren’t bad, are they. Half of the world’s population lives in cities, it seems. City is where history is often decided, which Whats will take place and Where and When. Cities are full of the forgotten. Of the tiny people, the poor, the Black, the Mexican, the Chinese, the Pilipino, the underdogs, the Mutts and Mixes, the immigrants. Crowds, hoards, masses piled like an 1800s hairdo miles up and miles out, rat nested and chemically sprayed for a full-bodied appearance, the outside layer combed smoothly and perfectly into place for social status. I love crowds—colorful, opaque, writhing.
The best parts of the city are the crowds because they offer something the villages, the countryside, even the suburbs don’t; that is, “centrality…privacy…the satisfaction of being a fly in the ointment” (Franzen, “First City,” pp. 193-4). In his How to Be Alone, Franzen quoted Jane Jacobs from her In Death and Life who quoted Paul Tillich “who believed that the city, by its very nature, ‘provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.’”
You want some City strange?
A month ago, dressed to impress in all black and heels for an interview with a company I never did impress, I was waiting at a bus stop on Kapiolani Blvd., for #3, headed home. There were a handful of city lifers hanging around, a bit greyer for the daily wear of concrete and exhaust, but generally normal. There was an Asian businessman, professional and shiny-shoed, sitting straight-backed on the bench; there was a king-sized local woman with her five bags and her child, as an afterthought; a bent, tiny, squinty Pilipino grandma stood next to the pole, vying for first dibs in bus chairs. And, there was a bum who frequents this particular stop. All of us were waiting (minus the bum) and all of us were unaware of what, I assume, none of us expected then but probably won’t ever forget.
Take my point of view, for instance: I’m standing back a bit from the bench to smoke and rifle through my bag for two bucks bus fare. I look up and notice the bum, with his back to me, holding a bottle down there, you know where. Looked an awful lot like he was taking piss, and OK, I’ve seen a man doing it before, but sad and slightly inappropriate, and certainly, sir, you should go find a tree, I thought. But too busy looking for my dollars, Ah hah! and doh-the wind plucks a buck right out of my hand. And here’s me—should I go grab it? It’s still flipping along; how would I look chasing a one dollar bill, tripping over my heels? Is that greedy and unsophisticated? Or just normal? But then, swoosh, the dollar flings out into six lanes of traffic and that’s that. I still have two more, anyway, so no worries.
I look up to find a trash bin for my smoke and again I notice something different about the bum. He’s facing me this time, with both his hands behind him, holding a plastic bag to his rump. It can’t be. I look around and see the same horror dawning on all the other faces. Definitely is. Slowly we all step back and back and back, inch away, while the poor Asian businessman, with his back to the bum, must have caught wind of the bag’s contents a foot from his head by a breezy whiff. He stood up stiffly and left the block altogether as swift as his shiny shoes could carry him.
That’s one of the stranges City has to offer. You probably won’t see that anywhere else. The City’s strange is also unique in that you share the strange with others but the others remain silent and irrelevant to you; you don’t talk to strangers, you just coexist and go about minding your own business, everyone else is a threat or a nuisance. So you get no closure to such encounters. In the countryside, I’m sure we’d all be laughing together on the bus. In the suburbs, we’d all be calling the police and feeling highly offended. But in the City, we quietly go our own way; some of us pretend it didn’t happen; others go home and recount what a strange thing happened to them today.