Monday, August 13, 2012

The President Is Coming, the President Is Coming...

The leader of the free world, the man whom I admire and plan to vote for in the upcoming election in November, was in town this weekend. In fact I was probably only a few steps away from him as we were both in downtown Chicago on Saturday at exactly the same time. He was at his campaign headquarters in the Prudential Building and I was headed to my mother's new apartment building just to the east. Some folks would have been thrilled beyond belief to be in such close proximity to the President of the United States. Not me, quite honestly had the election been held at precisely that moment, I would have voted for his opponent in a heartbeat. Why the sudden change of heart? Because police were blocking the street that led to my destination and more importantly, the parking lot where a pass was waiting for me.

Whispering epithets at the president under my breath (as the kids were in the car), rants that would have made Rush Limbaugh cringe, I resigned myself to parking in a public lot that would have set me back at least 20 bucks. Fortunately my son who's been to Grandma's more than I have, suggested an alternate route which got us there safe and sound after 45 minutes of driving around in circles.

All was forgiven and forgotten after we got to my mom's new place. I've never been a big fan of high rises, I like to be able to step outside at will, and am not particularly keen on elevators. I must say however, her new apartment on the 41st floor, has a stunning view of the city. I'll have to show it to you sometime. The place also has wonderful amenities that will make her happy and comfortable.

Except for getting my family there, it will be a wonderful place to visit.

I have several friends and family who left the big city for much smaller towns. When I ask them how they like their new digs, they inevitably tell me: "I love it, it only takes me five minutes to get to work."

That's a valid answer. The urge to leave the city typically centers around convenience. I takes me at least one hour to get to work. That's two hours a day, ten hours a week and more hours than I care to calculate in my lifetime spent just going back and forth to work. That's time that I could be doing something more productive like hanging out with the family, playing the piano, or taking Latin classes. Since time is money, I could be using those ten extra hours a week doing more work. What's more, the argument that there are so many wonderful activities at hand in the city falls through the cracks since I hardly ever take advantage of them. Heck I might as well move to the sticks.

But the fact is, since I hardly ever drive to work, my commuting time IS productive. If I'm riding my bike, I'm getting two hours a day of solid aerobic exercise. Going to the gym to work out for two hours every day is a luxury few working people with kids can afford. If I'm taking public transportation, I'm walking, more aerobic exercise, and reading on the train, another activity I have little time for at home. The most valuable activity however during my commute is simply being out in the public, communing with my fellow urban dwellers. Why is that such a big deal you may ask. That's a complicated issue, volumes could be written about it. Essentially I'm convinced that much of the intolerance we are experiencing in our society today has to do with the amount of time we spend alone: alone in our cars, alone in our offices or cubicles, alone in our homes in front of the TV or computer screen. Technology and contemporary suburban lifestyles have made it possible for us to only connect with the people of our choosing, and to avoid virtually all contact with strangers.

Which is not a good thing if you asked me. Unless you are completely homebound, it's practically impossible to avoid contact with strangers while living in a big city. Some would argue that cities are lonely places filled with people living only feet apart yet never getting to know one another. There's some truth to that. My theory is this: we all need a certain amount of personal physical space and when that space contracts, our natural defenses fire up.  Of course we're all different, some of us consider it rude not to greet a neighbor with a simple hello, while to others it's strictly verboten to talk to strangers. I'm not convinced that city people are less friendly by nature than our rural counterparts, we're just faced with personal encounters, both welcome and unwelcome, so much more often. Imagine a crowded bus or train car with standing passengers forced into close physical contact with each other. The unspoken rule almost everyone adheres to is avoid speaking to or making eye contact with strangers. It's not rude not to talk to one another in that situation, quite the contrary, it is being polite.

It's interesting that in many languages, the word for stranger and the word for foreigner is the same.

All this dawned on me yesterday while sitting in church. I mentioned in this space before that our congregation is comprised of a wonderful mix of people from all over the world; every continent with the exception of Antarctica is represented. Our church consists of people of all conceivable races. There are middle aged people sitting in wheelchairs, old people riding in Rascals, young children running around with their parents chasing after them. There are cheerful people in our church, grumpy people, straight and gay people. I'd love to say it's all one big happy family but hey we're human beings not saints. The same can be said for our neighborhood, it is a veritable United Nations in miniature, probably the most integrated neighborhood in the city of Chicago. Seeing people who in their homelands would be at war with each other, standing together in line at the local Jewel waiting to buy kosher salami, halal chicken, or basmati rice and frozen naan, is truly powerful.

This crazy quilt of cultures is only possible in a big city; in a small town where everyone knows everybody else's business, conflicting values, customs and ways of life simply can't coexist as they do here, at least tenuously.

At church yesterday the homily was delivered by a visiting priest from Singapore. Illustrating the point of looking inward, he told this story:
A man who was frustrated with life, set out one day leaving his city for good to find a new life in the "holy city." He travelled very far the first day, then when it was time for him to retire, found a comfortable spot on the ground to go to sleep. Since he had no compass, he took off his shoes and pointed them in the direction he was walking. Now in the middle of the night, along came another man. This man was a bit of a prankster who decided to turn the sleeping man's shoes around in the opposite direction. When our traveller awoke, he put his shoes back on and started walking in the direction his shoes were pointing. After another very long day of walking, he came upon a fabulous city that must have been the holy city he had dreamed about. The strange thing about this city was that it seemed very familiar to him. The buildings looked like the buildings of his old city, the streets and parks looked the same, even the people looked very much the same. He felt very much at home in this new city. With much joy in his heart he decided to stay and there he lived happily ever after.
At my mother's apartment Saturday evening I sat and watched the colors of the glorious Chicago skyline transforming as the sun disappeared below the horizon in the northwest. Slowly lights came on one by one until the buildings once lit by the sun, became lit from within. When it was almost dark, I got up to take a closer look. What I saw greatly surprised me. Lake Shore Drive, which should have been defined by a sea of white headlights and red taillights was dark for as far as I could see. Replacing the lights were flashing blue ones placed at every intersection. Then came a procession of more flashing lights, some red, some blue, on top of about twenty cars and motorcycles, moving at a good clip through Grant Park, just slipping on by on LSD. The president was headed home to Kenwood.

It was a magnificent sight to behold. I was just happy not to be stuck in traffic.

1 comment:

athena said...

If you live in big cities, you don't actually get the kind of relaxation that you will experience in smaller towns. This is one reason that a lot of metro people would visit localities or suburbs for a vacation.