Cities

I love cities. Which is a relatively new development – only the past two years or so.
I used to hate cities (though I have spent all my life in those giant conglomerations of dirt and cement and polluted air and grime). But increasingly I have come to realize that cities are a place of so many stories, so many dreams.

Not houses finely roofed or the stones of walls well builded, nay nor canals and dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity.
~ Alcaeus

People come to the city, always, in pursuit for something. Yet just as they come with a bright hope of some better future, so many also leave their dreams buried beneath the cold hard pavement, and grow weary and cold themselves, while others resign themselves to hold eternal vigil over vague memories of a happier time.
Cities are not kind places.

I love being in the city, because each day you brush shoulders with so many people, each with their own story to tell. Some are heroic, others tragic, some have come-of-age, others are cocky with the arrogance of youth, some are thousands of miles from home, others have never left town, some will tell you stories of wars and battles they fought in far away lands in days gone by, others would show you where he was knifed just last week, some are young and single and struggling so hard to raise their child on their own, others are whitehaired couples happily married for over half a century.

Not all stories are pretty. Not all are happy. But each story is the valiant struggle of a human being. When you are told such a story, you are offered a brief glimpse into another’s life, another’s soul. I don’t know about you, but I am honored to be offered such trust. Perhaps because I grew up on the milk of stories – from children’s books to fantasies to memoirs -, and perhaps because I am training in the profession of a historian, I feel a duty to seek out these unheard stories. I feel a pressing need to preserve a little, even a little, of these men and women who are such an integral part of the fabric of the place I call home, before time and the City whisk them away so that we never cross paths again.

Do you now understand my love for cities?

I am travelling soon, to Athens, and the rest of Greece, and finally, a brief little visit to London. So many cities! I can’t help but think to myself, so many stories to hear! Admittedly, I will be surrounding by an inconveniently comfortable bubble of friends and teachers. But I assure you I will find time to wander, and to hear stories, and to bear a solemn witness to the tears and laughter of others.

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Bus conversations

I met a Mexican while waiting for the bus one day. Said his name was José. He told me that he had been here in the States for five years, and hated the snow.

We got to talking, seeing as the bus was still a while in coming. He had just finished working at this bar just down the street. It was a good place, he told me, and they served good beer. But of course, I was not of drinking age yet.

So was he on his way home? If only. He was catching the bus to get to his next job, a chef at this mediterranean restaurant. They served very good food. Shells, fish, lobsters. The shells were done with a handful of one spice and a handful of another. And woosh – the flames!

So he enjoyed cooking? Oh yes, he really did. And the people at work were really nice. He loved his job, and his face lit up when talking about it.

Do you have a facebook, he suddenly asked me. No, I didn’t. Well, as it turned out, neither did he. All his friends did, though. But he didn’t get it. Putting all your photos and things on the internet? It was something teenagers did.

We then exchanged ages – he was 23 now – and I proceeded shyly to pry into his background.

Being a college student, I lived on campus with a wonderful roommate. He lived on XXth with his youngest brother. It was boring in the apartment, because there was nothing to do. All he could do was stare out the window all day. But I said that I was a college student?

Yes, studying history.

He’d never been to school before, but he would like to go someday. Did I party a lot?

No, I smiled. My excuse was that we didn’t have a car, but the fact was that I wasn’t much of a partying girl.

But what did I do in my spare time? Was I not bored?

Oh no. I read books. Lots of them. I wondered absent-mindedly if he knew how wonderful books could be. I know few of my friends did.

He then told me that there were a lot of Asians on XXth. Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, etc. I made a mental note of that, for I knew a Vietnamese friend who was starved for compatriots.

So, did he have any other family in America?

One other brother who didn’t share the apartment. His parents were still in Mexico. He also had a girlfriend, but when he went back 2 years ago, she was married to another man.

Five years away from his family and friends. It was such a long time. Will he eventually go back?

Yes, of course! He went back for a visit 2 years ago, and he will probably be going back in a year or two. This time for good. He’ll drive a car to get back. It’d be like a road trip.

I smiled. I had always wanted to go on a road trip. And it made me glad that he will be going home sometime. Maybe even next December.

We lapsed into a comfortable silence for a while. THen I asked what he missed most about Mexico.

His parents, he replied without hesitation. Then after a pause, he added his girlfriend to the list.

I’m so sorry, I whispered, offering shallow condolences. How does one offer comfort about something like that?

Then I asked my most foolish question. Why did he come to America?

To earn money.

Of course. Why else would anyone come to the land of opportunities?

You see, he told me, a thousand dollars here is twelve thousand dollars back home. That’s a lot. In fact, he already owns a house back in Mexico. He went on to tell me that Americans don’t have houses. They say they do, but you see, they don’t actually own them, because they still owe a whole lot of mortgage and credit and stuff. But he had a house. A real one. And he didn’t owe anyone anything.

He grinned in pride as he happily contemplated the thought of having a house to go back to in 2 years, and I shared in his joy of the moment.

So, did he have any plans when he got back?

No, not really. He was thinking about going to school. He’d never been to school before, and he kind of wanted to go.

Then the bus came. We boarded, and spent the trip in silence. He got off at East F. and XXth. I watched him jog toward the mediterranean restaurant, and wondered if he was late.