Friday, August 1, 2008
In which I realize what my gripe is about Belfast
Soon I'll be finished reading "The Geography of Nowhere" and, hopefully, the posts in which I gripe about the changing landscape of Maine (and elsewhere) will stop. But for now, that's what is on my mind.
One of the main issues of the book is the loss of public space in America. The car culture does away with it, most certainly. Kunstler points out that most Americans have never really experienced public space. I would disagree with this somewhat, for I think the public schools (and their playgrounds) constitute a type of public space, in which children are forced to socialize with others who are not related to them. He doesn't mention this, at least not yet, but I suspect it didn't occur to him.
However, I do tend to agree. It was not something I gave any thought to until 9/11. I'm not going to write anything about my political feelings about this day. I am stating this intent so that I am not misconstrued as having no feelings about the fate of the 3000 people who died.
In 2001, I still lived in Belfast. That morning, when I saw the news, I was about to get in my car to go to a doctor's appointment in Augusta, which is the state capital. I was a few miles outside of Belfast when I heard that all the state buildings in the country were being closed, and I realized I was scared enough to retreat to my home, far from any probable places for further attacks. It sounds absurd in retrospect, but the truth is, noone really knew what was going on in those early hours, and I would venture to guess that not feeling fearful was an atypical response.
I came home to an empty house and put on the TV set. I watched it all day and for many days to come. This was where I got my information about what was going on. My neighbors stayed in their houses, probably watching their own television sets or using the internet. I had only one neighbor who came out onto the street in distress. She was from New York City. She had been a problem neighbor and I'd never had a friendly conversation with her, but she was crying and obviously in need of a person to talk to, so we talked. It was good for me to talk to her, for I had been in town (I lived about two miles away) and the streets were near empty. I had a desire to speak to people I didn't know, but it appeared that noone but her felt the same way.
My desire to do something involving others was immense. It seemed crazy to me that there were no groups of people congregating on the streets. I thought back to my very early memories of the assassination of JFK and remembered how it seemed every one came out of their houses to speak to their neighbors or to cry together. But not for this, not for 3000 people. I couldn't understand it.
I walked around Belfast every day for days, looking for something I could not find. I went to the local churches, assuming that folks may be inside praying and even though that doesn't hold much meaning for me, it would have felt good to find others displaying their fear or grief (or whatever) in public. There was nothing. In fact, the streets seemed more empty than usual.
On the television, I saw pictures of New York, where folks were congregating in all the parks or on certain street corners where they had put up photos of missing people. Movie theaters opened their doors just to let people sit inside with others. People sang songs together in Central Park. All of America saw the New York I knew, the one where people come together in times of crisis, and that was a surprise to most, for New York is viewed as an impersonal and unfriendly place. As an ex-New Yorker, I knew that wasn't the truth.
Some of my fondest memories of New York involve crises, though not of the extent of 9/11. But still, they were telling. I was in New York for two major blackouts, many snowstorms that had shut the city down and the tense days after the Rodney King riots. What did people do when these things occurred? Many came out of their apartments and hit the streets. The friendliness of New Yorkers, when push comes to shove, is extraordinary. If you're a tourist and you ask someone where a certain restaurant is, if you get a real New Yorker, he'll not only tell you how to get there, he'll walk with you and inform you of a better place to eat that's not geared to tourists.
This is public life. People give candles and flashlights to those who don't have them. They sit on the stoops of the apartments and chat and share some beers. They erect temporary monuments or places of refuge. Even in a city as huge as New York, it is essentially a city of many small communities.
So, here I was in Maine, post 9/11, wandering around trying to find people to hang out with and finding none. I ached for the company of strangers. It was then that I realized that living in New York in a tenement building, I had led more of a small town life than I had been living in a real small town. For me, small town life means our lives are intertwined, but this is no longer the case. Sure, we have our friends, but these places are totally insular. Most everything is family centered. And I'd say that tourism and summer people have made that insularity even worse than it may have been otherwise, for Mainers keep some distance between themselves and the people who only "use" this place for recreation. It's understandable. I feel it. I hated living on a street where most of my neighbors lived there for a few weeks out of the year.
When the going gets rough in most of America, people go inside. They band together as kinfolk on their property where noone else can venture without an invitation. They may likely break out their firearms to protect themselves from anyone outside their clan. And so, as someone who has no family here, I wasn't invited (which makes sense, given that I agreed with Obama when he said that rural folk cling to their guns and religion in times of trouble).
Before the war became a justification for what was to come, in those early days, I had a woman say to me, when I told her I couldn't tattoo her 'cause I was a bit too shaky, "But that happened to New Yorkers!"
I wanted to go home, to New York. I wanted to roam the streets or to sit with the signs, symbols and people with whom this thing was happening. To me, it was happening, whatever it was (fear?), to us all, no matter where we lived. It happened to this country.
For two years, I thought about moving back to New York because of this, but I have grown too accustomed to a semi-rural life. I know that there's something that I am used to, the life of the public square, that I miss, and I miss it deeply. I suspect others miss it, too, but they don't know what they are missing.
Photo note: 7th Ave. & 11th St., outside St. Vincent's hospital, police barrier covered in missing persons posters.