I remember reading Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” well, though I hardly enjoyed it. He wrote with a thick style — dense, voluminous, oddly viscous — and the subtext became so insistent near the end I felt as though I was being beaten across the brow with a very fine hammer. I do remember parts, however, and one part in particular has stuck with me.
I remember one character, I believe the mayor himself, became sad and began to walk. He gravitated towards the places he associated with sorrow, where people down on their luck tended to linger. The city physically represented the places inside of him, and by walking those paths he represented his own feelings. I have known women to show changes inside of them through changes in their hair or the way they dress, but no one ever talks about the way our feet follow memories — perhaps because when we walk in those moods, we are really only walking somewhere else, and using the physical path to illuminate the other.
Similarly, I think we choose to travel new places because of what we want to be, at least while we are still young enough and naive enough to believe that a place can change who you are. Not that it can’t – where you live always changes you, but not in some sudden, magical way. The changes come slowly, painfully, not like the seasonal peeling of the manzanita but through a process of deliberate, brutal self-sculpting. What people told you would “just happen” does not just happen. Even recognized and consequentially broken, glass ceilings leave stairs covered in pointed shards. Place does not change us, but it offers us a ground upon which to change ourselves. The suburb offers safety; the city offers choice; the country offers privacy. None offer new identities, although they do offer new starts.
I came to Boston because Boston was more exciting than Santa Barbara and less exciting than New York. I wanted a coming-of-age-adventure with a pre-engineered happy ending (“wanted”) – to be grownup, a college student — two ideas not at all paradoxical at the time — not to get what I wanted but to know what I wanted. My suburb’s manicured streets had begun to wrap around my neck and choke me, the only sound in that idyllic calm the periodic shriek of the train. When I came to the city, I heard it buzzing and thought, maybe here I could breathe. I could happen. I could become.
I did not know the city then as I do now – not as someone you become, but as a stranger you get to know.
The city is the neighbor you love to hate, who tells you he’ll grow on you, like fungi. He is not like my hometown, a tiger mother presiding over her people in a way that in another place, and another time, might be mistaken as benign. He does not watch from the hills, combing the city for failure or distinction with perfect, claw-like hands. He urges hard work, but not as she urged it, as a replacement and a promise of some greater affection, something which would permit belonging. He does not cut you down like grass when you peak above the others, trying to see outside the perfect square, and tell you that if you work hard enough, you may one day be happy, or even successful.
Funny how the children killed themselves with trains, the very things they could have used to get the hell out of there. Here’s my advice, to those of you still stuck there, and those of you considering that option: get on the train, instead of in front of it. This is the first stop in a long, long line of stops, and at the end is the place that you were meant to be. Home is the last stop on the end of the tracks. It isn’t here, and it isn’t now. You’ll make a few bad stops, sure – you choose your failures and you own them, just as you own your successes. That’s what living means. You do it for yourself, and you choose your regrets. They will not have to do with your grades, or the college you got into. They will have to do with the people you didn’t ask out and the people you didn’t punch in the face. The things you didn’t do, but never the times you decided to board the train.
But back to the city, that dirty scum bastard. Judgmental, though he never really gives a shit one way or the other – he mostly judges to keep up a good conversation, frankly. Sometimes he knocks on the window at night, smoking a cigar he puts out in your African violets, and asks you for wine. He glitters in the darkness, odd and enchanting enough that you give him the bottle and ignore his comments about the brand, before you toddle off to bed, shaking your head. “Fucker thinks he’s hot shit, doesn’t he?” He drives you a little mad, certainly, but when he runs into you, you can run into him right back. He’ll flip you off, of course, but later he’ll come by, dirty as the day he was born, and visit you. He’ll chat you up about whatever scandal’s on the news, whatever art is at the MFA, and all the while shake you down for loose quarters, minutes, naps. He’ll step out to buy you coffee, spit in it, and hand it back to you. Does he love you? Does he want to kill you. Did he just forget your first name?
He’s an odd son of a bitch, the city, and he ain’t a cheap habit, but when you’re with him, you’re free. Grass springs out of cracks in the pavement and people are just astonished it survived at all. When people call you weird, they all have a completely different, equally bizarre concept of normal in mind. Walk around the city. He’s not yours, as you thought he would be, and the streets aren’t places in yourself waiting to be found, at least not yet. He’s someone you have to get to know, and like all good friends (and shitty neighbors), he challenges you. He pushes, you push back. Eventually you find a style, an equilibrium – a way of interacting with the city, with others, with life that is fiercer and more resolute than it was before. You learn to live in the dirt and stumble, because if you weren’t willing to stumble there’d be no point in leaving the house, the pavement’s too damn uneven. Some days, what makes the stumbling worth it is there for you, at the end of the path. Some days, you just have to remind yourself that the stumbling is your own. Some days, your friend trips, and you laugh so hard that then you’re both on the ground and the city is pretending he can’t see you because you’re rolling around on the sidewalk, as if smiling while you walked wasn’t enough to make you look crazy.
And then of course he’s over for dinner, his phone going off with little siren noises, asking why the hell you ordered from that one place, don’t you know what they do to their workers? Oh, and throw in some guac, if I don’t get some avocado in me I will literally kill someone. Literally.
So that’s my take on the city. A neighbor, a friend, perhaps something more even as we move out of our Honeymoon phase. He teaches you how dumb you were, but how brilliant, too, and you learn to see yourself by his glittering lights. You’ll leave him, as friends always must, but he’ll be there, making conversation in the back of your mind as you walk your childhood streets. God, he’ll say, where is the good Italian? It’s 68 fucking degrees, why is she bundled up like that? These fucking peasants. But what is this weather though, heaven? Why the fuck would you leave somewhere this pretty, especially when someone else is paying the rent?
He’s a good friend to have, the city. He’ll make you leave your house, if only to get away from the sound of him rattling the windows. And shitty neighbor or not, he’ll be a tough one to leave behind, even if it is only for a little while.