Urban History

Seems like it might have been a different lifetime, or someone else’s life, or a dream.  But I think it actually did happen:  I lived in the city.  Several cities, as a matter of fact.  Chicago, Boston, Amsterdam.  I’m glad I tried it while I was young.

I grew up in the suburbs, on the edge of rural, rather than on the edge of urban.  Elevators were a novelty.  Buildings more than three stories tall were intimidating.  Until traveling in Europe after high school, I don’t recall ever taking a subway, commuter train, or city bus.  Solving the mysteries of, and then mastering, urban public transportation was one of the most empowering accomplishments of my young adulthood.

I knew early on that I was not meant to be a long-time city dweller. Walking Chicago’s Loop with sunglasses on, holding my breath, hands over my ears, I realized that I could not thrive in this environment.  The very worst of humanity’s creations are on display, every day.  I will not linger on those.

But how can I explain the way it made my heart soar into the heavens, to see Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sky Above Clouds,” or Marc Chagall’s cobalt blue stained glass?  I have wandered through an entire museum filled with paintings by Vincent Van Gogh.  His hands touched those canvasses.  I stare into the eyes of Rembrandt’s self-portrait; he stares into mine.  Ansel Adams, in his own darkroom, dodged and burned the range of light that shines from Half Dome.

I’ve been in the raucous crowd listening to street musicians in Glasgow:  bagpipers and drummers get the primal blood pumping.  As do the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Violent Femmes, Afro Celt Sound System, dances and raves and nightclubs.  B.B. King playing the blues.  Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia.  Yo-Yo Ma’s cello singing out, through a darkened symphony hall, while all 2,500 of us held our breaths.

I have stood silent before the brilliant mandala of Notre Dame Cathedral’s South Rose window.  Walked among the heavy stone columns of the Glasgow Cathedral, diagonal sunlight streaming in.  Gazed upward to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to see the spark of life leap from God’s fingertip to Adam’s.

My feet have crossed the decks of the U.S.S. Constitution – “Old Ironsides” – as well as the Fram, polar explorer built to withstand the crushing ice in both the northerly and southerly high latitudes.  The curves of a Norse Viking ship cut smoothly through the violent surf of the North Sea.  History resonates through wood.  The floorboards creak in Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church.

The quiet, secret places in a city hold a special magic.  Picking blackberries along an abandoned rail line in London, such unexpected sweetness on the tongue.  Hearing the buzzy “peent” of nighthawks flying above the buildings on humid summer nights.  Sitting on a tree swing in a green, hidden courtyard on Yale’s campus, amidst the poverty and squalor of New Haven, Connecticut.  Waiting weeks for a single, perfect peach to ripen on a tiny tree in a scraggly lot in downtown Gloucester — then climbing the chain link fence one night to steal it and share it with a friend.

And what’s better than a cup of coffee and a real New York bagel with cream cheese?  Maybe a café au lait and beignet from Café Du Monde.  Or a cappuccino and biscotti from Caffè Sicilia.

Empire State Building, 1990.  From the open observation deck, I am leaning against the rail, out over the roar of Manhattan.  Sirens, subways, jack hammers, buses, taxis, humanity, send vibrations up through the bones of the building.  It is a deep steady rumble.  Stray wisps of hair push back away from my face, carried on the uprising current of noise and exhaust and energy pulsing off of that city.

There is heavy traffic on the Dump Road this afternoon:  three cars passed me in a five-minute period.  All of the drivers waved at me.

I’m headed for the Rocky Ridge trail, going the counter-clockwise way on the loop, which is the opposite of how most people hike it.  But I like climbing the steep part first, watching the view of the bay and the mountains open up as I get higher.  You can look down at the town from up there, and for a Wednesday afternoon in late October it’s quite busy.   Several cars are moving around.  I can hear one chainsaw, one barking dog, one small airplane, one person pounding a hammer, one front-end loader and one dump truck.  With a bit of educated guessing, I could tell you who the individuals are who are making the noises.  The sounds are sharp and distinct in the clear air, almost drowned out by a chittering flock of siskins mobbing the Sitka spruce cones.

This entry was posted in Culture, History, Music, Seldovia, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Urban History

  1. Dede Higman says:

    Your writing is marvelous! It inspires me to add my piece. Hope you don’t mind.

    I was born and raised on the edge of Minneapolis, which is a pretty big city. I LOVED the city. I turned 17 the summer of 1970. Freshly graduated from high school, working with kids in the ‘inner city’ neighborhoods on the north side. barefoot and enjoying the heady experience of being away from home. It was joyous, sometimes scary, sometimes dangerous (like hitchhiking up and down Broadway just for the fun of it)…. I really did love it. Then, after a year of freshman English and world history, I got a job with one of my workmates from the previous summer. The job was in Virginia City, Montana. Small town, even though it survived on tourists. Friends living in old mining shacks in the gulches outside of town. Dogs everywhere, Wide open spaces…Still barefoot and hitch-hiking, I got restless and took of for Seattle. Made friends, went home to Minneapolis for the winter, Worked as a hotel maid. No more school. Headed out west on the train to live with my Seattle friends, who moved to a little fishing town north of the city. LaConner was home for several years. It was there that I truly fell in love with small town life. It’s a little tourist trap, now, but when I was there it was a sleepy fishing town surrounded by farm fields. I worked in the daffodil fields, and the fish cannery. I got married and Bret was born there in our rented house on the slough. Then, Craig discovered Seldovia. He helped fly a small plane up from Seattle to Seldovia, was in town overnight, came home and announced…’They’ve got really big tides and there are dogs everywhere! We’re moving” and move, we did. Bret was six months old when we arrived, and I have never regretted the decision on the least.


    • Cindy says:

      So cool to hear the story of a “barefoot hitchhiker”! I love picturing you working in a daffodil field. (And no wonder Bret is a wanderer.) Thanks for sharing.


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