Saturday, July 15, 2006

Belle In The Big City

A college friend is visiting for the weekend (my first houseguest in my second weekend in my new home, and uh, yes I only just moved here last Friday. Hey, I never said I wouldn't mitigate the first shock of living alone by having successive houseguests). Having guests forces you to do any of a number of things, but for me it accomplishes two feats: 1) it makes my cheap-ass, broke-ass, "if I can make it I won't buy it" self go out to eat a lot more than usual, and 2) it makes my timid, homebody self get out of the house and explore more.

So tonight, my old college friend, a co-feminist activist/feminist newspaper editor/co-organizer of 20 people marches at Illiberal Apathetic State University persuaded me to take a walking tour of Liberal College Town. I like Liberal College town, though it is a bit grittier than I am used to. See, I grew up in Big Mayberry, which bordered Illiberal Track-Home Planned Suburban City (where my university was located). Big Mayberry was not a small town, but it had a small town feel, with an "Old Town" section, cops who would stop you for jaywalking and who came around every Christmas to give best-decorated house awards, Chilli Cook-Offs, an annual Big Mayberry Days city fair, etc., etc. I lived on the edge of where Big Mayberry bordered Ethnic Ghetto City, but nevertheless it was suburban paradise, and a good place to grow up.

Illiberal Apathetic State University was in an antiseptic, affluent planned city and was made entirely out of concrete. Very clean. No homeless people of any kind--there was a municipal ordinance against "loitering." Seriously, don't be out walking past 10 pm in Illiberal Track-Home Planned Suburban City. And defintely don't do that in Big Mayberry--you'll probably get Barney Fife on your tail if you do. I then went to a major law school in what is called one of America's most urban environments, but you know, in the suburban corner of it. A really bourgie, affluent suburban corner of it. Like, there was my neighborhood, and a couple miles either way were the real urban parts of the city. It was weird living in Bourgie Metrosexual City, with it's skyscrapers, homeless people, and insane traffic--two miles away from this floating bubble of suburban quiet (where my law school and university housing were located). But my bubble was largely insulated from the bit of city 2 miles away, and the truly dense urban parts of the city 10-16 miles away. So really, it didn't feel that much different than what I was used to.

Well, now I live in the downtown part of Liberal College Town, on the edge of Wayyy Grittier Neighboring City. So that's a big change. I don't take 1 am walks nowadays. Actually, I prefer it if my walking alone stops before it gets dark. So you know, a few concessions to "We're not in Mayberry, anymore." The city feels even denser than Bourgie Metrosexual City, and I can walk everywhere because everything is rather jammed up against each other. Still, within a week I'm getting used to it. I'm getting used to the streets, the homeless people, the public transportation system, and the strange concept of seeing individualized, non-prefabricated track homes. Is that a shingle roof I see? Blue paint? PINK paint? What is that I smell? Is that weed, or just funky incense? How can there be more tatoo parlors than nail salons here? Is that an anarchist bookstore over there? Toto, we're not in antiseptic Illiberal Planned Suburban City anymore!

Well tonight, Feminist College Friend and I went to BIG City, which is just a short train ride away from Liberal College Town. WHOA! If I thought Liberal College Town or Wayyy Grittier Neighboring City were different, BIG City is wayyyyyyy different. I didn't have enough eyes in my head to process all the wonderful things I saw: Big, tall, beautiful neoclassic and Art Deco buildings. So many types of columns, Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian, with high relief sculpture that I felt like I was in a life-sized version of the 1893 Chicago Columbia Exposition. Historical landmarks that people read about in novels all the time! This is the oldest university I've ever attended, and BIG City is full of history. Bourgie Metrosexual City was full of history too, but I didn't live in the part of the city with that history--I lived in one of the newer parts, very clean and pretty. Now I live in a slightly crumbling part of Liberal College Town, and I feel like these bricks (yes, BRICKS! Not just Le Courbusier brutalist concrete!) can tell me much by their worn surfaces.

I haven't been to very many places in my life. Growing up exceedingly poor meant very few family vacations. Having a crazy strict father meant that there was no real "age of exploration" for me--so no wild roadtrips. My first roadtrips were in law school, to visit college friends at their new graduate schools, or (gasp!) flying to Washington, D.C. to visit my best (female) friend who works at the Pentagon. So I can count the number of places I've been that are not "home" on one hand. I've always wanted to travel to truly historic places. I've always wanted to go the parts of England where the Saxons, Danes, French, and later the mixed breed that became the "English" have collectively marched through history on that one bit of ground. I wanted to go to Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born. I want to go the parts in Vietnam where the Chinese, French, Vietnamese, and yes, American peoples and history have intertwined to produce the current historical moment. I want to stand in one place and feel the movement of history and the march of time beneath my feet--that though I stand still, the ground is moving with the stories of the civilizations who marched on this spot before me.

It feels like the world is opened to me when I am somewhere older than the collective memories of the previous generation. Where the stories are imprinted on the bricks, in the town hall records, and in the bibliography of the place--where it will take more than two paragraphs to learn the history of a place and the people who have lived there. When I have to reach for a book to understand the significance of where I live, so that I might feel at least a part of that significance rather than merely a visitor to it.

It is a strange experience to go from relatively new (you know, like only 40 years ago), planned cities (which are very convenient, mind you) to a city whose age is a blessing and a curse, whose history you cannot begin to know without greater effort and a little dip into the stacks. It is a humbling experience. I have not yet traveled to the shores of England where the Norman Conquest took place in 1066. But I felt, for a moment, the ground shift underneath my feet as I stood in BIG City, looking up at the tall, stately buildings and feeling an ancient wind whip through my hair. It was a moment in which a younger Belle's knees might have buckled, and a moment where a more timid Belle would decide that after this program, to run back to Big Mayberry with her tail between her legs. But older and more adventurous, and with my adventure-seeking Feminist College Friend by my side, I just smiled, caught myself a firmer footing, and contemplated the idea of spending the rest of my life here. Contemplated never returning to live in a city without history or character, and to always seek that which is older and grander than you.

Sometimes the ground moves beneath your feet. And sometimes, you should move with it.


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