“Why’d you leave Atlanta?”
I was at Eataly on 5th Avenue. The young man behind the pasta counter took me for a tourist right away — because I asked him how his day had been so far, says my wife — or probably only tourists shop at Eataly. At any rate, Atlanta came up. He was surprised that I had chosen to live in New York, even for three months, over staying home. He’d visited Atlanta and liked it. A co-worker was listening in and added, “Plus, it’s clean!”
(Tourist. That reminds me of an anecdote. Many years ago, my family and I spent part of one summer in Montana. We lived in a cabin on a working ranch near the west entrance to Glacier National Park. Grandma lived in the main house with her daughter and son-in-law, and she was sure we were going to trash up and/or burn down their cabin. So while we were out hiking, she’d let herself in, ostensibly to collect the garbage, but in fact to collect evidence of our slovenliness. I encountered her one day, and in the course of our conversation she looked directly at me and said, “Aren’t tourists awful?” Um, no?)
As it happens, I’m not only living elsewhere this fall, but (as some of you know) I’ve also tackled Rebecca West’s humongous Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an account of her travels in the former Yugoslavia in the 1930s. To be honest, I already see in the first pages of West’s travelogue that tendency natural to tourists: we see as charming, fascinating, beautiful, original, worthwhile, authentic … as special, in other words, that which we would take for granted, even deride, if we lived with it every day.
After all, the woman at Eataly who made the “clean” comment works here, directly across the street from Madison Square Park, in this setting:
So every now and then I get a glimpse of how silly this entire enterprise is, from one point of view. As I wax poetic about our outing yesterday to Brooklyn — where we looked out over the East River toward Manhattan from the Promenade, had a delicious lunch at a frantically busy cafe on a pretty little cobblestone street in Brooklyn Heights, happened on an only-in-Brooklyn scene in Fort Greene Park (at which acrobatics was mixed with satiric send-ups of capitalists and fracking and Facebook), admired the old mansions in the Clinton Hill neighborhood, happened on the lovely campus and sculpture garden of the Pratt Institute, biked amid lolling couples and picnicking families in Brooklyn’s extraordinary Prospect Park, and concluded the evening at an Italian restaurant (where we eavesdropped with our hearts in our mouths as the young couple seated next to us, clearly expecting their first child and already planning more, talked so earnestly about how to renovate their home to accommodate their larger family) — as I wax poetic, that is, I know that if our roles were reversed, and I were reading your exclamations over Atlanta’s Piedmont Park or the Italian restaurant just up the street from us in Inman Park, I would be shaking my head and saying to myself, “Goodness gracious, get a grip!”
On the other hand. We walked past a nondescript apartment building. In the twilight, its windows were sheets of translucent gold. I looked in this, then that apartment. Each one someone’s home. And I said to my wife, “People live here! They’ve never heard of Inman Park or Agnes Scott College. They have jobs that they go to every day. Families. Each person has a story. Someone has relatives back in Jamaica. This person’s ancestor was a thane in a corner of Scotland. That one’s ancestors lived along the Congo.” I was seeing lines reaching out from those hundreds of people and the thousands around them and the millions upon millions more around them, unique histories and branches of families running parallel, crossing, crossing again.
So, back to the topic of leaving home. Isn’t that partly what it’s about? Reminding yourself that you’re just one of several billion people, no single life more or less valuable than another. It’s about the wonder you experience when you are reminded of that. Or the dismay, I suppose. Because when people say that living in New York City can be hard, I know what they think they mean, but I suspect there’s this, too: it can be very difficult to live with so many other people’s lives constantly rubbing up against yours, so many other equally valid claims on the world.
I remember a time when my parents visited us in Boston. It was 1987, and I was doing my practice teaching at the Boston Latin Academy on Ipswich Avenue, in an unprepossessing building directly across the street from Fenway Park. I walked them past the school one day. The scene was as urban as it comes: a bit grimy, trashy, gloomy. My father looked around and said to no one in particular, “How did a boy from Louisville, Georgia, get here?”
I could have reminded him, of course. But that’s not what he meant. What he was really saying was this: “I never imagined that such a place existed.”
Leave home → lives of others → imagination → empathy? Maybe?