I made my bargain long ago when I ditched life in Southern California for Montana. I’ve lived in the rural West ever since as I soon realized city life was no longer for me.
But the city still has its appeal.
I’m fortunate that life and work allows me to travel. The nature of that travel is that it usually results in a visit to a large city. If you have to house hundreds, or sometimes thousands of student journalists, while also providing space for the workshops and lectures that are part of these large academic gatherings, you need the convention infrastructure only found in cities.
Unfortunately work-related travel necessitates a certain amount of, well, work. But even the busiest trip still allows time to explore, especially since I’m willing to forego excess sleep until I return home. My days are filled with the work of the convention, usually followed by early evening social events that provide invaluable networking opportunities (and occasionally free cocktails). But the night and the early morning are mine.
I take full advantage.
Cities sleep, but not until late. There’s usually stuff going on, and even better, there are great food options on the menus of joints open up to, and well past, midnight. I save room for two dinners by skipping the free continental breakfast at the hotel — with its semi-sliced bagels and rubberized scrambled eggs. Lunch is light; just enough fuel to get me through cocktail hour. Then I pound the pavement.
I was walking the streets of Boston a couple weeks ago when I realized I take to the city the way some city folk on vacation embrace the wilderness. I used to see this a lot when I was a fishing guide. We’d be drifting down the North Fork, and some city dude would be in the back of the boat transfixed by the splendor of it all. The sensory overload would sometimes be so great they’d barely speak.
Cities are like that for me. Although the landscape is constructed rather than natural, I get just as transfixed. Maybe it’s the energy derived from the buzz of so many humans in close proximity; Maybe it’s the stark contrast from my everyday rural reality. All I know is I love it.
There are challenges to city life, of course. It’s always a little awkward interacting with panhandlers. If your mama taught you right, you’re uncomfortable ignoring someone when they address you, even if it’s just a stranger asking for money. If you walk a half-dozen city blocks, and give your spare change to the first panhandler you encounter, are the next 10 people jiggling their cups entitled to an explanation that you already contributed to some dude down the street?
I usually resort to a hastily mumbled “I’m sorry,” and keep moving. Honestly, I’m not always sorry I don’t have any money to give. Sometimes I have spare change, sometimes I don’t. But I am sorry that this poor soul has reached the point where begging seems the best option. So my apology is honest, on some level.
There’s also the thing about looking strangers in the eye. City folk don’t do that. Back home we say hello to just about everyone we meet on the sidewalk. But that’s not how it works in the city, where the only folks who look at you are the ones about to ask for money.
City folk are as friendly as anyone off the street. I met a couple of hardcore Celtics fans in a bar on Boylston Street. I’m a Lakers fan and while we puffed our cigars we confessed a mutual admiration for our most-hated rival. I also gained cred by admitting that, so long as the Dodgers weren’t in the Series, I was happy to see the Sox win.
I need to live in a place where streams filled with wild trout and meadows thick with game are close at hand. The maddening congestion of the city spoils the fun if I stay too long.
But when I get a chance to explore the urban wilderness for a few days, it’s just like Heaven.
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