Tag Archives: City Life


18 Dec


In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a moral compact embedded in a political contract or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.  — Bill Moyers

It’s a privilege to ride the subway.

It’s a privilege to be jostled and annoyed,

to be forced into a world of people who are different,

and to find a way to make it work.

It’s a privilege to deal with the crazy,

and to sometimes be crazy myself,

for I have been that guy on the train

and have learned, as a result, not to judge.

Not to judge the sour man who scowls at my son, only to lean in and whisper “He’s smart!”,

or the elderly woman who says no to a seat, grateful but proud of her strength,

or the tattooed young man who gives up his seat for the mother no one else sees,

or even the tourists in their too-bright clothes, the ones who used to be me,

clinging and stumbling as the floor moves beneath them, desperate for a place to land.

It’s a privilege to feel that discomfort.  

It’s a privilege to feel discomfort at all.

A gift of grit, necessary for the pearl.

And for those of you who will not ride,

who are above rubbing shoulders with the world,

let me tell you a little secret:

It is your loss,

and you are not missed,

for it’s a privilege you have not earned.


Painting by Lily Furedi

Let’s Get Lost

25 Aug

I’m a city dweller, and a walker, and I love to be lost.  The best place to do this is of course London, where the street system is in fact the paved record of footpath upon footpath worn across an ancient settlement over more than a thousand years of human habitation, and as a result is now almost impossible to navigate for more than a few feet without losing all sense of direction.  Also there are pubs.

In New York, by contrast, it is a hard get lost.  Stranded maybe.  A little turned around.  But rarely lost.  Oh sure, it can be done, especially in the vast outer boroughs.  But I’m talking about Manhattan.  There’s a grid system.  Numbered streets and avenues.  Rivers on two sides.  Anyone who’s mastered simple addition and subtraction can figure this town out in seconds.  It ceases to be a navigational challenge at about the age of six. 

Which leaves one, in the biggest city in the world, almost always knowing where you are.  The delicious joy of locating yourself in the world becomes a rare treat, because you are always deeply, mathematically, found.  And on top that you can always see where you’re going.  Instead of streets looping around in the whimsical manner of a drunken 13th century shepherd, they fly straight to the horizon as if created by a machine, which for all practical purposes they were.  Surprises are few, and boredom sets in. 

Which leads to my favorite coping mechanism, the ever changing route.  Go a different way, see things from a different angle and gain a new perspective on the  world.   This is good in theory and works for a while, especially in New York where blocks tend to be so densely packed that they become their own micro-neighborhoods and straying a very small distance from a habitual route can open up an entirely new world. But it can also lead to an insanity all it’s own.  

For ten years I lived in Chicago and rode my bike everywhere.   Covering far greater distances on bike than I ever could on foot, by the seventh year alternate routes had become exhausted and boredom began to seep in.  Struggling to maintain the adrenaline rush of urban discovery I traveled further and further from what is traditionally known as a direct route. By the ninth and tenth year the problem had become extreme. My 20 minute rides to the loop were now taking upwards of four hours and encompassing many of the surrounding suburbs as well as sections of northwestern Indiana.  In an attempt to deal with the problem I moved from macro to micro-exploration, traveling in a manner so direct that I frequently rode my bike through alleys, yards and in one embarassing incident, a stranger’s living room.  Finally, on an icy  winter day in Uptown I actually slid beneath a bus, where I made the very urban discovery of darkness, motor oil and extreme fear.  As a result I gave up the bike and moved to New York City in an attempt to start again.  And yet the desire remains.  I want to be lost.

So here’s the plan.  This weekend I will go somewhere I’ve never been, close my eyes, spin around three times and begin walking.  If I’m lucky I’ll find a pub.  And if I’m very lucky I’ll find myself.