So, in a little bit of a break from catching up on my Real Adventures (current excuse: now Starbucks’ wifi is messing up, and my pictures won’t load. Oh, for the good old reliability of CofO’s wifi! …there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say…) I thought I’d post this. I’ve been working on it off and on – more as a bit of creative nonfiction than as a potential blog entry – for a few weeks now. Anyway, I thought it might be enjoyable.
I grew up with the story of The City Mouse and the Country Mouse. It’s a story with a pretty clear moral: life is better in the country, where it’s safe and good, rather than in the city, where all the excitement and riches in the world can’t make up for its flaws. And it’s a fable! Which means it’s basically the next best thing to scripture, and at least two steps above fairy tales. The half-subconscious idea that I got, naturally, was that only foolish or greedy people (or those who couldn’t escape) lived in the city. Good, smart people lived in the country, or at least in a suburb.
Now that I’m living in a city myself though…Well. I call bull.
I absolutely love living in a city. I mostly grew up in small towns and suburbs, and then from the age of twelve we lived in a farmhouse about seven miles from the nearest town. I wouldn’t say I’m a country girl, necessarily – I don’t have enough experience with various sorts of animal refuse to get my country girl bona fides. But I certainly have more than enough experience with trees and little creeks to keep me from saying I’m a townie either.
Regardless of experience though, I’m discovering that I’m a city girl at heart. The ease of access, the bustle of people, the way there’s always someone awake, about, and on the move… It’s like the fizz in a bottle of pop.
I love the city in the morning, when a few scraps of mist still cling to the spires of the skyscrapers, and the rising sun shines through and turns everything gold, pink, and pearly. The people flowing along, on their way to work and school and various appointments, breath fogging the chilly morning air. The waiter who always sets out the tables the same way, in the same order, every morning on the pavement, weaving in and out of the passing pedestrians like some kind of choreographed routine. The street musician setting up his corner. The taxi drivers standing idly outside Starbucks, smoking and leaning against their cars and waiting for their first fares of the day. The way a tiny breeze weaves around the corners of buildings, questing out little bits of paper to blow around. The pigeons that coo slyly in the eves of café awnings, their bead-bright eyes already watching for dropped food.
I love the city in mid-afternoon, when everyone has somewhere to be – elsewhere, and right now. The sidewalks are crowded with people all trying to get somewhere and only getting in each other’s way, the streets are full of frustrated drivers foolish enough to think that they had a chance at driving anywhere at this time of the day. Honking horns and the low rumble of conversation mingle along with the occasional shouts of street venders and the discordant music of various buskers. The morning breeze is gone, replaced by an ever-mixing layer of air that smells of baking bread from the bakeries, coffee from cafes, Asian spices, car exhaust, perfume wafting from expensive shops, and the battling scents of cologne and cigarette smoke. The shade in the park is a welcome relief from the sun that shines straight down between the skyscrapers, bouncing off miles of glass windows, leaving no shadows and baking the cement. Businessmen on their lunch breaks bowl on the green lawns while homeless guys watch and bet cigarettes on the winners.
But my favorite time in the city is nighttime. When the sun goes down and the lights in the thousands of sky scraper windows checker the night sky. Orange streetlamps, green-yellow-red stoplights, the whiter light from shop windows, blue glows from cell phones, the softer yellow light from restaurants: it all mixes to create a soft blue-and-gold glow over the street. Evening shoppers stroll by or hurry along laden with bags, couples laugh and take goofy pictures in front of local landmarks. Cars flash red and white down boulevards, grudgingly sharing the space with tired businessmen trudging home from long days at the office. The park is dark now, and not quite so inviting. Anyone who ventures onto its darkened paths hurries along with hands in pockets and eyes on the path. The subways are full of tired workers going home and young people going out and school children goofing off. The skyline is a checkerboard of black and deep blues and purples and golds, yellows, reds, and whites.
Every time I walk out my door, no matter the time of day, the city is beautiful to me. If it’s raining, I love the way the rain dapples the stone walls of the buildings and sparkles off the road, reflecting headlights. If it’s sunny, I love the way the light reflects from glass-encased buildings and turns every street into a magician’s light-box. If it’s foggy, I marvel at the tops of skyscrapers, enveloped in wisps of cloud. If it’s snowing, I love the confusion of the pigeons and the way ordinary, dour business-people turn into grinning children. Every one of the city’s moods delights me – nearly silent Sunday mornings, when you can walk for blocks without seeing another soul. Busy holidays when thousands of people crowd the walks and it’s nearly impossible to get anywhere.
I love the short-tempered street cleaners, who have no qualms about shouting at you to get out of their way. I love the mothers on the playground who share exasperated smiles that go beyond language barriers. I love the bakery workers who toss your change on the counter and move to the next person with a smile because the line is out the door and down the block. I love the stringy artists who hang around peddling their canvasses and play music with the instrument cases open in front of them.
I love knowing that there’s a store two blocks away if I realize I forgot an ingredient. I love the subway, and being able to get off or on at any point and just go somewhere sometimes. I love the buildings that send jet streams of wind through the side-streets and the pigeons that are so fat and lazy they won’t even fly away – they just waddle a little faster. I love the bikers that zip through the crowds with no regard for people who don’t see them coming. I love the random jaywalkers who dart around the slow moving cars like fish around whales.
I love that it’s never entirely quiet. I love that you never feel entirely alone – even when you can’t see anyone else, you know that they’re just a wall or two away. It’s a secure feeling, a safe feeling.
And yeah – I do still like getting out of the city every once in a while. I like going for a hike in the nearby national forest and not seeing another human being for hours. I like being alone with just the birds in the trees and the chittering squirrels and the wind whispering through the branches and finding a little hidden brook.
But I also love being able to exit the national forest at the end of the day and catch a train back to the city. I love being able to throw a thankful smile at the train driver who held the train a few extra seconds so I could get on. I love being able to sit, my chin in my hand, and watch the country turn into neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods into the city proper, and then all of it vanishes as the train dives beneath the ground and enters the labyrinth of underground stations. I love taking the escalator back to ground level, breathing in deeply, and turning to head for home.
I come from the country – or at least the small town life. I will always love the trees and the woods and the creeks and the little furry animals that live therein. But now, as I sit in a warm café and watch the city turn grey with a cloudy dusk outside, I feel more and more that my heart belongs to the city, where the pulse of life is palpable and the energy never entirely fades but rises and falls in predictable waves with the punching of time clocks, the opening of shops, and the taking of lunch breaks. I feel like I fit – one more cog in an enormous clock, ticking and tocking away with insane intricacy.
So the Country Mouse had a bad experience. So her foolhardy cousin in the city had some bad ideas and got them both in trouble. But I think that the Country Mouse made her decision a bit too quickly – and even if the city wasn’t for her, I reject the moral that it’s not good for anyone. Thanks, Country Mouse – but I prefer the city.