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City-Life

June 1, 2011

Often when I return home from a trip, I’m despondent. I miss the people I went to see, and the places I’ve been beyond the borders of Ohio, where I feel like I didn’t choose to live on purpose. I am known for commenting, when we get within an hour of home, that there’s a black cloud over Ohio; this is usually quite literally true.

But his weekend I went away to an exciting place where I saw people I would love to spend more time with and had a very good time. The good times lasted for one more day than I’d planned, though, and I was farther north at a time of year when farther north means colder, and so today I feel very glad to be home.

The taste of big-city pleasure had the usual corollary chores, including sitting in construction traffic and standing in long lines. It makes me think of this D.H. Lawrence poem entitled “City-Life”:

When I see the great cities—

When I am in a great city, I know that I despair.
I know there is no hope for us, death waits, it is useless to care.

For oh the poor people, that are flesh of my flesh,
I, that am flesh of their flesh,
when I see the iron hooked into their faces
their poor, their fearful faces
I scream in my soul, for I know I cannot
take the iron hook out of their faces, that makes them so drawn,
nor cut the invisible wires of steel that pull them
back and forth, to work,
back and forth, to work,
like fearful and corpse-like fishes hooked and being played
by some malignant fisherman on an unseen shore
where he does not choose to land them yet, hooked fishes of the factory world.

Now, even though I’m saying I was in a big city–one of the “great cities” of the U.S.A. (Chicago)–I wasn’t downtown, and I certainly wasn’t looking at anyone miserable in quite the way of a 19th-century urban factory worker. And yet…have you ever looked into the other cars, when you’re edging along in traffic? This is, in my experience, a small-town thing, to look at the faces of the other people in traffic. Unless you’re from a small town, why would you even look? You’re unlikely to know the person beside you. But this is what I do now, after years of living in small-town Ohio. And I did see people who looked “drawn” and who were driving “back and forth, to work/back and forth, to work.”

Sure, we go “back and forth” here in rural Ohio, and there’s not a big difference between sitting in a car for an hour because you’re so far from anything worth doing and sitting in a car for an hour because there are so many strangers between you and what you want to do. But the people I see today look less like they’ve been hooked, maybe only because I recognize them.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    June 1, 2011 2:41 pm

    The big difference is that when driving far distances in a rural area, you are at least moving. There is scenery. Even if you pass the same damn cow each time. On a city highway, you can spend the same amount of time stuck, not moving, with no apparent end in sight to the non-moving. The latter makes me insane. I want to kill all those faces I look at (and, yes, I look) because if they weren’t on this road with me, I might be getting somewhere.

    • Elizabeth permalink
      June 1, 2011 3:25 pm

      The first time it took me an HOUR to drive the last four miles of my commute, I was homicidal and thoroughly understood how road rage incidents can happen. It’s happened more to me, and although I don’t get as enraged, I still get plenty steamed.

    • June 2, 2011 8:17 am

      Yes, I do prefer moving and seeing the same cow (or rusted-out car covered with vines) to sitting in traffic. Except when I have car trouble and am miles from help.

  2. June 1, 2011 2:41 pm

    I look all the time, partly because I know they’ll almost never be looking back. And once in a while, I find that I do know the person next to me. A couple of years ago, I was stuck in traffic on the expressway on the way home from Chicago and was absent-mindedly watching the hands of the woman next to me, who was knitting. Then she leaned forward and I realized it was one of my neighbors and water aerobics students. I tried to catch her attention, but she was too busy with her knitting. We were about three feet away from each other for over a half an hour and she had no idea.

    • June 2, 2011 8:18 am

      You are an atypical city dweller. Did you ever tell her this story?

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    June 1, 2011 2:43 pm

    “back and forth, to work/back and forth, to work.”

    Oh yes, that’s me.

  4. June 1, 2011 2:53 pm

    Disappointed that you didn’t quote “city of big shoulders ” – I have never understood this line, but it seems to be traditional. 🙂

    • June 2, 2011 8:23 am

      Well, you know, it’s from Carl Sandberg’s poem entitled “Chicago” so some people think they have to quote it any time they mention the city! I do like the line. The city is personified, and he’s the kind of big, gruff, muscled person who shoulders people out of his way so he can get to the good stuff, wherever it is.

  5. June 1, 2011 5:32 pm

    I commute into Dublin from a small town about 25km out (Maynooth). I’ve tried travel by car, by bus and by train. Car people look harassed and stressed and aren’t paying attention to anything but the road ahead, even if they’re not driving. Bus people look distracted and sometimes stressed, but look out the windows, and particularly on the way out, look calmed by the time the journey is done. On the train, though, people get on, open books or laptops, take out phones or tablets, and zone out. For many people, I suspect it’s the one bit of quiet they get in the day, and they look at peace.

    I take the train most days, now.

    • June 2, 2011 8:29 am

      One good thing about living near a city is certainly the availability of public transport, especially trains.
      I’ve never had a train available for a commute, but it does sound like the best choice, at least for a reader.
      My favorite trains for tourists are the metro in Washington, DC and Paris, and the underground in London, because many of the names of the stops tell you what you can see there.

  6. Mumsy permalink
    June 1, 2011 9:17 pm

    “where I didn’t choose to live on purpose” – I know that feeling! It’s why I moved back to Louisiana, because even though I am a born Yankee girl, gentle Baton Rouge is the place I chose to live on purpose. But Ive never left any place -city or rural – without regretting some lovely quality it owns.

    • June 2, 2011 8:31 am

      I would love to visit Baton Rouge and New Orleans some day; we should take a Walker Percy pilgrimage.
      Part of the irony of my tone is that I’ve missed the lovely qualities of the Washington DC suburbs since we moved to this rural area, and am discovering with some surprise that I would now miss what I have here if I left.

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