I am unsettled, and I suppose I always will be. Yet this is my tenth year in the same “unsettled” apartment. The annoying, stimulating, surprising presence of the multitudes feeds a compulsive creativity. Under such conditions, how can one not continue to discover new ideas?
I have tried, and have no taste for, suburban care-taking. When such things were mine to keep I felt more alienated than settled. I have owned single dwelling houses on acres of property surrounded by the same. The isolation of the houses made me twitchy, despite having grown up in one. You come to realize that ownership is an illusion, if by ownership you mean “control.” Responsibility comes to control the owner, every month, every year.
I’m an urban survivalist.
I rule over a remarkably small area surrounded by uncontrollable forces. My kingdom, though tiny, is diverse.
I am encompassed by people I do not know. Yet those who dwell around me are carefully observed.
I am in fragile alliance with like-minded neighbors, and at an uneasy truce with hostile ones. For this is the “audioscape” where you must compare and contrast your neighbor’s personal problems with your own. You hear their fights. You hear their ecstasy. You hear their TVs. And you learn how not to.
This is where you might hear the anguished cries of a man living in a house across the street who awakened to find that the old tree in front of his home had suddenly been cut down and paved over for the driveway of the new four-story complex replacing the entire north end of the residential block. And this is where you learn that one of the partying 20-somethings who quickly occupied that complex was murdered shortly after moving in, her body found in a dumpster in the next county.
Here the grinding menace of massive trucks approach with stunning irregularity and without respect for sleep or peace of mind. A crackling roar means another massive branch – if not an entire gigantic tree – has broken and crashed on something or someone, nearby.
Low flying police helicopters suddenly appear like giant wasps, circling repeatedly, fading away then pounding overhead, again and again as the fleeing felon races through the parameters of my little empire.
Here one may pull back the curtain to find helmeted police with guns drawn about to shoot at anything that might be moving around the back fence. You hope it isn’t the cat you’ve known for years.
And here you see a huge coyote wandering down the empty 3 A.M. street hunting for water in a drought.
Where else can one observe raw humanity with measured detachment? The unintentional voyeur becomes the objective witness to self-imposed human captivity.
Where else must one sometimes listen to the music someone with completely different taste decides to blare across the urban echo chamber?
You see them naked. You know who can parallel park and who can’t. You identify the haters. You spot the strangers. And when dangerous strangers appear, sometimes you find yourself teaming up with an asshole because at least it’s an asshole you know.
You know who’s responsible in the treatment of their pets. You know who leaves their dog’s shit on your yard.
Perhaps you, too, are an urban survivalist. You’re most comfortable living in a small placewhere your privacy is respected but activity is buzzing around you. You know where the nearest supplies are and the quickest way to them. You know the side streets and the back alleys.
You know the rooftops of the immediate area.
You encounter people from around the world within a three mile radius of home. You hear ten languages in a day. You see the richest and the poorest people alive within three blocks of home.
You enjoy a warm night with some neighbors out in front when a young party of two ladies and a gentleman come down the sidewalk on their way home from drinking. The ladies start chatting with your partner while the gentleman, a fellow from Nigeria, pleads for a sympathetic ear in a very charming accent. The ladies have been drinking and wearing him down all night and he simply wishes he had a little marijuana to mellow things out. Like a genie answering a magic wish, you pull a loaded pipe from one pocket and a lighter from the other. You hand them to the amazed gentleman, who eagerly takes the hit. And after holding it in as long as possible, he gratefully hands back the lighter and pipe and asks, “Are you a God?”
“No,” you reply, smiling slyly. “Just a spirit.”