This is a kind of riff on a conversation going on in various places, most recently this post of Dr. B's. Also, I'm still thinking about citizenship and what it means. This post is going to wander about and spill over into the next post.
I like being alone. (Those of you who read this blog regularly are probably rolling your eyes right now and saying "No, really? I'm shocked.") I'm a classic introvert: if I don't get to spend at least part of the day not interacting with other people, I get miserable. However, I am, at a molecular level, a city person. I'm happiest having my alone time in a neighborhood with hundreds of other people above and below and next door and passing by on the street. Even now, living at the edge of town rather than close to its center, I feel a bit isolated. If I lived in a really rural area, I think I'd be deeply lonely.
Take a concrete example that came up in Dr. B's comments: transit. In a silly meme post a while back, I said something about how "certain types of people's fear and disdain of public transportation" is one of my pet peeves. Let me offer an anecdote. One spring break while I was in graduate school in the Great Upper Midwest, two friends and I decided to go on a road trip to Chicago. While there, we had lunch with Friend E's friend, G, who had been living in Chicago for a while; the restaurant was in Chinatown, so I suggested that E and F and I take the El, since it's such a quintessential part of the Chicago experience ("the cheapest roller coaster ride in the city," it's been called), and when I lived in Chicago as an undergrad, I took it all the time to get downtown. When we mentioned to G how we got to the restaurant, she was horrified: "You took the El? I'm scared to take the El! I've never taken it! I'll drive you back, don't worry!" I considered pointing out to her that her chances of becoming a violent crime statistic were probably higher in a deserted parking garage after dark than on a train car full of people, and I'd never once been hassled on the El, but decided against it. E said, on another occasion, that she hated taking the bus because all the "freaks" rode the bus. (She's not alone in this opinion; check out this GM-sponsored ad discouraging people from taking public transit.)
I'm troubled by the mindset that everyone has to do their own thing, have their own vehicle, own their own house, go their own way, pull their own weight, not lean on other people, not reach out, not connect, not be reminded of the millions of other lives going on in the world (and if you don't, you're a freak, or a naive Pollyanna who'll just get mugged or knifed). It's the same thing that bothers me when I read about how people in this country are getting less and less involved with social groups outside their families, bowling by themselves, not going to the movies when they can sit in their living rooms and enjoy "home theater," and retreating more and more into the private sphere.
Have you seen those commercials for that coffeemaker that's supposed to make coffee-shop-quality coffee right in your own kitchen? And the accompanying visual is a busy sidewalk café that suddenly vanishes and is replaced by one of the coffeemakers brewing away right there on the sidewalk, and then we cut to the same coffeemaker in someone's kitchen? That commercial always makes my heart sink a little lower in my chest. It took me a while to figure out just why it's so depressing, but it's because the advertisers have missed the whole point of why people go to coffee places. It's not the coffee, most of the time. It's the being at a table and reading in the company of other people who are also sitting and reading the newspaper, or talking to the other people, or whatever. It's a communal experience. But the really depressing thing about that commercial is that maybe the advertisers are on to something, after all, and people really would rather drink coffee in the privacy of their own homes than go somewhere and watch the world go by. Or that people just don't have the time anymore (this is a whole other rant, so I will bracket it for the time being).
It's sort of hypocritical of me to say all this, I suppose, because I've never really been a poster child for community involvement, and I have in the past tended to be a stubbornly independent individualist who avoided human contact. But I think this was in part because I spent my life in cities, where one can take for granted that there will always be other people around. There's something comforting about city life for introverts: you can be left alone, thanks to all the little rituals city people have for preserving minimal levels of separateness in a crowd, but you're never totally isolated, and you're always aware, as Dr. B says, of all these other people leading their lives, many of them not like yours, so you can be relieved that you're not the only weirdo out there. You can be your independent self, but you don't lose the interconnection. If that makes sense.
Anyway, I'm still thinking this through. So let me talk for a while about Baltimore, where I spent the better part of my childhood, and maybe that will explain some of what I'm wanting to say.
(To be continued in the next post.)