Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Teeming Anonymity

I love the city.
I love life in the city. This city. Ottawa.
As much as I can sometimes be critical of mass culture, as much as I abhor mobs in general, and as solitary a life as I lead, YET, I love the throng and the pulse… the teeming anonymity of city life.
I love the simultaneous blending of familiarity and unfamiliarity that is a part of long-term urban existence.
Let me explain myself.

I have lived here in the downtown core of this city for over ten years. When I lie in bed at night, I am 130 feet in the air, [top floor – top corner] and through my floor-to-ceiling window I can see Parliament Hill on the other side of my balcony railing. Especially if the pigeons move over a bit, to give me a better view.
To me, it is beautiful, and serene. At night, the twinkling lights of the city illuminate the entire apartment.
As often as I can, as often as is humanly possible, I leave my penthouse sanctuary and descend to street level, and walk the neighborhood.
Weekends are usually my full-time Downtown-Time! My car usually remains parked underground from Friday evening to Monday morning!
And so, one becomes accustomed to several aspects of familiarity.
One gravitates towards certain coffeeshops. Or stores. Or restaurants. Or parks.
One walks streets, and the same ones so often, that [at a certain point] these could probably be walked blindfolded. Such familiarity is part and parcel of being immersed in daily amounts of urbanity. And I love it.
You begin to know the friendliest of the maple-syrup vendors. You quickly learn who makes the best Lebanese shawarma. Where the best pizza is, etc. I can walk into any coffeeshop in the downtown and immediately know where the power outlets are located. Why? Because I have been there with my laptop a thousand times before.

At the same time though, there is a level of newness and unfamiliarity that meets a person each step of the way.
I do not really know the baristas that serve me coffee at Starbucks. Yet we are familiar with each other on a first name basis. Or, if not this, they will usually know what I want to order before I even say it.
I may hear some sort of racket up the street, and as I get closer I find that a substantial crowd has gathered around a busker, who is juggling flaming thingamajigs. The streetcorner is familiar, but what is currently happening on it is unfamiliar.
I am sitting even now at a coffee place on the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau, and as the signal changes, a woman walks her pink bicycle across the street. I am watching her, and I know her, but I don’t.
I know her because I have seen her dance on the street during many Canada Day celebrations, over the years. She is an amazing dancer. She does all of those crazy bare-footed gyrations while frantic bongo-music drives her on. It is like a state of frenzy. I have seen her dance many times. Today, her large-frame pink bike seems so incongruent alongside her tiny body.
And just the fact that she walks this bike across the street [rather than riding it] sort of says to me that she has a respect for order. In the sense of decorum. She wants to ride her bike, but not in and out amongst honking traffic!
A couple of blocks further, when I can no longer see her from here, she will get on her pink bike and peacefully pedal, probably humming some seriously New-Agey tune to herself.
I’ve seen her probably fifty times, and in that sense, she is very familiar to me, but I have never once spoken to her, and so in that sense, she is utterly unfamiliar.

This sort of teeming anonymity may not appeal to a lot of people.
A lot of people would rather live in an environment where they can recite [if necessary] the very intimate life history of nine-tenths of the people they associate with, or see, on a daily basis.
But this is not me at all. I don’t have the slightest desire to peer under anyone’s rug. Nor do I want them lifting mine. I prefer the teeming anonymity.
It fits my overwhelmingly Platonic/Idealistic lifestyle, perfectly.
Teeming anonymity allows me to actually apportion people [en masse] to what I prefer to think of them as.

I actually like it that if anyone walked up to me right now and started talking to me, I could literally turn to them and say → “Hey listen. I’m real sorry but I can’t talk to you right now because I am busy writing a little essay about how I prefer to live in an environment where I don’t have any real societal obligation to talk with you.”
Of course, I would not say it like that. I am purposely exaggerating.
But on the flipside, there also exists an option, and that is TALKING WITH THEM.
Meeting them. As in, getting to know them. The important word though, for me, and for people like me, is “option.”
For me, Quality of Life is based heavily on keeping that option an option.

Recently, I have been wrestling with the recurring idea of moving. Moving back out west, where I came from. But it’s tough. A tough decision for me. Because well, I love it here.
How could I do it?
How could I leave these streets?
How could I abandon all of these people I do not know?



Beth said...

I admire your "option" approach to life. (At times I wish I could be more like that.)
The "draw" of the West will have to be a powerful one to enable you to give up the city you love.
(And the Ottawa Senators - Leafs and Senators! Monday night...)

Melanie said...

That's exactly what I liked about living in a big city. Now I have people passing me on the street saying, "Hey, nice haircut." I like most parts of small town life, but I do miss that 'teeming anonymity'. What a great explanation of that metropolitan condition.

Sam Houston said...

I hear you, Cip. What you described reminded me of why I enjoyed living in London for a few years.

Unfortunately, even though I've lived in a large city for most of my life, suburb living is just not the same as living closer to downtown. I spend many of my weekends in the "real" Houston but I miss being able to walk out my front door into the kind of world that you described so well.

cipriano said...

Thank you Beth, Melanie, and Sam, for reading me.
It is so neat that out here in this other environment, [the Blogosphere], in this other level of "teeming anonymity" people can emerge and come out from the crowd, as welcome friends.

stefanie said...

I love living in a city too. If I could afford it I'd buy a nice condo right in the heart of downtown. My little house on the fringe of downtown is nice though and I am close to a city lake and it feels so m all and neighborhoody within the confines of a big city. I know what you mean about seeing people you know but don't know. I like that too. I feel connected and part of the city but at the same time I have the options to engage with my surroundings and the people in them according to my mood and desire. Sometimes I fantasize about moving to a small town but really, I'd miss the city too much.

Isabella said...

You put it very well, Cip. Sometimes I wonder why I bother living downtown in a big-ish city, when at the end of the day I retire to a pretty quiet little life. But it's that sense of teeming with possibility (even tho', for me, Ottawa was short on possibility in the end).

cipriano said...

Thank you for your comments, Stefanie and Isabella, my fellow urbanites!
Yes... there is just a lot of stuff I love about the city.
The opportunities. You know... concerts, theater, libraries, Starbucks on every corner, junk like that.
And oh yes... all of the wonderful people to not know!

Merisi said...

I understand what you are writing about (you put it very well, btw *g*). I was born in a little hamlet, one church and a dozen farms encircling it, meadows and fields stretching to the woods on the horizon. I loved it. I still do. Yet, I moved as a teenager to the city and have no desire to leave. I did leave my beloved Rome, then Washington. I hope I don't have to leave Vienna. It's a big part of me that stayed in my other cities. There can't be much left for "after Vienna", I guess. ;-)