Sunday, September 16, 2007

City, Country, Privacy

Recently, I had a disagreement with a friend loosely based on the recurring “why don’t you have a girlfriend/wife” routine, although, gratefully, this time it didn’t branch off into the “you must be sucking cock” side theory. There’s something important I have to tell you: if a person appears to be sane, healthy and sufficient, stop wondering anything about the person and accept whatever he’s doing in his life. Anything else is conjecture, usually wrong, and it’s a good idea to keep that stuff to yourself, or only share it with other “concerned” individuals. It serves no purpose to lay these suspicions on the object of these theories. Rule of thumb, unless someone in your life is going off the rails or messing with you in some sense, let him be. It gets much worse than your expectations.

But I think underneath that was what I call the city/country conundrum. This situation may present itself in other geographical circumstances, but in mine it’s the difference between living in the city and country, which I’ve done both of for nearly the same amount of time. (Country has about three year lead.) While I present myself as a “normal” individual, that’s mainly my choice to see myself as a country person who moved to the city. I will always see myself that way and maintain that rural sense of calm. It’s just who I am. When people not from the city meet me and don’t know I’ve spent two decades in New York, they assume I’m some acceptable derivation of a redneck. Mainly because I don’t have all the stereotypical negative attributes of city folk: loud, too cool for the room, arrogant, pushy, brashly liberal, etc.

As noted, what’s really going on is someone choosing one set of values over another, despite the fact that I have a strong understanding of city life, having lived 20 years in the gritty 718s, 10 in what was basically a ghetto, and the past 10 in a predominately working-class white neighborhood (that’s now being over-run by moneyed vampires). I understand the city – in a lot of respects, I love it. I know how hard it can be, know how to carry myself, know when to defend myself and when to keep on walking, basically have that unspoken sense of how to get along here that a lot of people don’t.

This understanding that’s taken me 20 years to develop is pretty much lost on most rural folks. Most people I know from the country have always lived there, and for good reason: they like it, a lot. Can’t picture themselves living any other way. More than likely close to family roots. Surrounded by extended family. If not by lifelong friends, then around familiar faces they’ve always known. Country side. Open space. The feeling that not everyone is out to get you. Waving “hi” to everyone you meet.

You can call that a highly romanticized version of small-town life, but it isn’t. Sure, I’m leaving out small-town gossip, constricted social values, etc. I’d list “lack of diversity” … but honestly, you live in a place like the Bronx, all the black and hispanic kids all act the same and have that same constricted sense of social values. (Yet, you’ll rarely hear anyone stating any need to escape those places and values which, from what I’ve seen, are more negative than anything I came up against in a small town. I really don’t like people painting white rural areas as having a “lack of diversity” when I can personally guarantee you the black/hispanic urban version is no better, and sometimes much worse. “Lack of diversity” is shorthand for “I can’t stand working-class white people and have found this acceptable way to present my loathing.” You’ll never hear anyone harping on the Bronx for lacking diversity; it lacks just as much diversity as any economically-depressed rural area. And I suspect you’d find the same shit in depressed urban areas all over America.)

Please don’t misread me as damning these inner-city places – I’m just pointing out what I know from experience, that they’re just as constricting in their own strange way as any rural area. And usually a lot more dangerous. That’s the key difference for me between rural and urban life: the constant awareness of danger. It’s a given at night, and you’d be wise to watch yourself during the day, too. It goes without question that doors and windows stay locked here. Shit, when I go to they gym, I keep my valuables in a fanny pack, have it with me the whole time, and hang it on a hook in the shower. Why? My locker was robbed once a few years ago, and a few months after that, found my lock half-cracked open during rush hour at the gym. Why risk having my credit cards, driver’s license, MP3 player, cellphone and house keys stolen? I developed this habit after going to the locksmith after the second incident, asking him what I should do, and he recommended never leaving my valuables unguarded anywhere in a gym, because any lock can be cut in a matter of seconds. Some guys think I’m over-doing it – but I still occasionally see dazed-looking guys explaining to gym attendants that their lock is gone, along with their clothes and valuables, but how could this be, I had a lock … to which I say never under-estimate the can-do spirit of white-collar crackheads.

That’s one huge difference between rural and urban life for me. The other big one is simply how people live in the city, which is to say it’s hard as hell to get anyone on the same page in terms of hanging out. It just doesn’t happen unless you plan it, and even then, people constantly change their plans. I’m not that kind of person. You make a date with me a year from now and never mention it again, I’m going to be at that place in a year waiting for you. But that’s just not reality for most people in the city. And it usually takes much more time to get to a given place, say a bar or restaurant, and then get home from there. Could be minutes, could be two hours travel time all together in terms of walking and taking trains. It’s a time commitment, and the one constant I see in the city is people with very little spare time between work and the travel time to get there. When I lived in the country, you got a phone call, said yeah, hopped in a car and were there in five minutes. That rarely happens here!

Thus, unless you’re living with someone, you spend a lot of time alone, unless you get on a high horse about seeing people every night of the week, which is a job unto itself. Most people I know have their own apartments or have lived that way in the past, assuming they’re now married or living with someone. If you have an apartment to yourself, you have solitude. That is, if you’re geared to be alone. If you’re not, you have loneliness. Call it the glass being half empty or half full – it’s the same thing and is however you choose to define it. I have much more “alone” time in the city, and I like it. Always have, probably always will. It doesn’t bother me. I get shit done. I don’t answer to anyone but myself. I have time and space to think, which is key for any writer. It agrees with me.

And I do sense the difference whenever I go back home to Pennsylvania for a visit every six weeks or so. Because there will always be people in the house, be it my mother, brother or sister, cats and such. I like that, too, as it’s a change of pace for me. I tend to be a pretty easy person to get along with. Don’t bust balls. Don’t have that sort of negative charisma that puts everyone in my presence on guard. (Hard to explain what that is, but I feel it around certain folks in the city all the time.) Willing to roll with a lot of shit. Always glad to help out. Don’t pick fights. If a living environment in the city presented itself where I had to live with other people, so long as they were decent and sane, I’d have no problem with it. If I was fucking that other person, even better!

But I do like that feeling, when I get back to New York after a four-day trip back home and a long bus ride, of unpacking my stuff, sitting down with a sandwich, flipping open the Sunday Daily News, and thinking, ah, now I’m back in my space. I like having both, and I like the balance. Don’t sit around pining for Pennsylvania and cats and mom and siblings and old high-school friends and friendly neighbors. They’re back there, and I can go visit regularly – I’d like to visit more regularly, but I do so as time and work allow.

I have my privacy in the city, and you better believe I value it. Whenever I feel that privacy infringed upon – like with this recent situation with the friend – it annoys me. And I guess you can trace a lot of this back to my mother, and my father when he was alive. Because with them, it never seemed to matter what I did with my life: so long as I stayed alive, they were/are cool with me. I know a lot of parents aren’t like that, that they have high expectations and demands of their kids. Which is fine, but it wasn’t how I was raised. I was raised to understand the key thing was for us to be alive and in each other’s lives. Not warring constantly, or fretting about what we were or weren’t doing with our lives. This sort of understanding runs through me like life blood – it’s how I see the world, and how I treat people in my life. You will never catch me busting anyone's balls (or labia?) regarding how/what he or she should be doing. Sounds like hippie bullshit? It’s more like Depression Era bullshit, where my parents saw that just staying alive, having roof overhead and food on the table was what really mattered. I haven’t forgotten that lesson and will live it the rest of my days. You want to take over the world, have at it. I just want to live in it.

So, I have that sort of “live and let live” attitude about my own little world. On top of which, this is strange to admit, but I never had any privacy living in the country. When I go back to that house in Pennsylvania, I can’t believe that there were seven people living in it. My two brothers and I shared one small bedroom. I sit in that room now and think, “Christ, what kind of insanity was it to have three growing boys in this room?” But it was necessary – there was no other room. What was really chaotic were my father's siblings visiting with their similarly large broods of 5-8 people, in a house that comfortably holds four adults. As Charlton Heston said in Planet of the Apes, it was a madhouse. Many times, I pissed in the backyard because there was a 4-5 people deep line for the bathroom. You present me with that sort of situation now, I'd get a fucking hotel room until everyone left.

Even in the best of circumstances, I had zero privacy. There was none in the backyard either, where we were next to a schoolyard constantly buzzing with kids playing sports, and neighbors on all sides. And everyone knew each other’s business. Not in a friendly, supportive way either. In that cunty “need to know your business so I can feel superior to you” sort of way. I don’t want to paint a stifling picture here, but there is a flipside to having your neighbors know you and be aware of what goes on in your life. And usually that sort of knowledge is superfluous. When I find myself indulging in that sort of shit, I never feel good or sated in any sense afterwards. Whatever problems I have are still there, and whatever brief glimmer of happiness I took in getting some lowdown shit on someone else fades fast.

So it was a strange thing for me to move the city, where there are millions more people, and realize that I would have much more privacy here. I liked it! I still like it now. And I can tell you, there are millions of other people living here just like me, who came here from somewhere else, some with their hearts set on escape (mine wasn’t … there just wasn’t any good work back there for a college grad), and they have a comparably solitary life to the rural/suburban family way of life they left behind. And I’m also willing to bet many of them are as OK with this way of life as I am. There is very little pressure to conform here when you’re not from here. Conform to what?

I don’t like using the word “escape” with small-town life, because I’ve realized you can never escape who you are. You can change your name, run to the other end of the globe, but sooner or later, you’re going to catch yourself doing something and recognize, “Jesus Christ, that’s what Dad used to do” or sensing vestiges of where you came from in how you do things. I think I always wanted a little privacy. That’s why I started writing in that spiral notebook on my bed, because even if there were two guys in the room with me, watching TV or whatever, I could write in that notebook and have my own world. I don’t think I ever got the chance to stand or fall on my own merits until I got to New York City, and for that I’ll always be grateful. I’ve learned a ton of shit about human nature over the past two decades, most of it dark, but valuable knowledge nonetheless. I’d have never learned these things if I’d stayed back there.

And when I go back there, it reminds me that I can have this, too, if I want to move in that direction of creating a family and such. Hardly a “best of both worlds” scenario. Just the option to recognize the value of both worlds, while I firmly live in the city one. Bottom line, I like being alone in the city, have felt that way for a very long time now, and sometimes it’s hard to explain that to people in a small-town who don’t live that way, and find it freakish. It isn't. Which is why I’m happy my mother is who she is, and my father was the way he was, because they’ve quietly taught me the value of life itself, more than how you choose to live it. Can’t end this thing with that sentence, which sounds like something you’d find in the Readers Digest back on the bathroom radiator in Pennsylvania. Yet another city plus: my shithouse literature is much more interesting.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

You have two good topics here: being a straight guy who's still single and unencumbered, which I also am, and the difference between city and country life, which I also identify with, having spent a lot of time over the years in rural Vermont. But you lost me in trying to bridge the two. If you were still living in the country, would you be married or living with someone? If not, don't you think you'd draw the same comments as you do now? And the issues of privacy you write about don't seem to me to be tied at all to whether you live in a rural or an urban environment, but more to your general approach to being social or not social. So you've got two interesting issues here, but I'm not convinced they have anything to do with each other.