But I’ve somehow managed to land for the moment in a city of constant change, and I find myself wanting to put down tentative surface roots. Here, the school year is filled with college students and their machinations, while summer brings tourists and those hoping to profit from them. Last weekend, I watched a young man wearing a kilt and nothing else ride a ten-foot tall unicycle while playing “We Will Rock You” on the bagpipes. For a denizen of a tourist destination, it is very important to one’s self-esteem to look like a local, but I couldn’t help but stop and gawk. The bald danger, the sense that here was a performer throwing everything he had into his art, with real risks—concussion, humiliation, broken bones, a public indecency charge from an untoward flap of his kilt. And I remembered: yes, that’s what we should be doing, always, on the page. No fear, no withholding.
At the cavernous entrance to the subway, I’m often stopped by a middle-aged man who begins with “Could I ask you a question?” He doesn’t have a question; he wants to tell me that he needs ten bucks to buy a bus ticket back to Tennessee for his mom’s surgery. He’s got to leave tomorrow. But I’ve given him money before; he’s lived here longer than I have, working nine-to-five like the other commuters. Still, I always feel compelled to apologize for not forking out. He surely needs the money, if not for the bus. “That’s all right,” he always says, and his voice is understanding, as though I’ve just revealed a terrible moral deficiency (as I clearly have) and he wants to reassure me that I will be forgiven.Outside the cafe where I often work is a small grassy square where street musicians of varying levels of musical incompetence compete for aural dominance. There are benches for businesspeople to eat their takeout lunches with the tourists and buskers, homeless teens with their dreadlocks and dogs, and the human statues, like this angel, who pose in the heat for hours without wavering.
Does everyone crave this mix of backgrounds and languages and incomes and attitudes, the grunginess at the corners of wealth, the feeling that each time you go away, you will return to a different place? Or perhaps it mirrors the inner state of the inveterately peripatetic: fearing the kind of death that comes from insensate security and comfort, ever wary of that deceptively static concept of home.
Tomorrow: the work of Jared Smith.