This week I've turned my reading focus to literary criticism and urban studies texts. I'm skimming through a stack of them as part of my research for a book on cities in nineteenth century lit. It's a field that's pretty full, but having grown up in NYC, I'm fascinated by city environments and the ways in which people attempt to make sense of the chaos of a city.
The chaos of the city was really driven home to me last fall when I passed through on my way to visit family on the tip of Long Island. I flew into LaGuardia thinking that I could catch the Long Island Railroad from there. I forgot that the LIRR leaves from Jamaica station, which is linked with JFK airport, not LaGuardia, so I had to take a taxi from one airport to the next. The trip was no fun, because 1) we were in traffic most of the time, and b) my cab drive and the drivers around us drove like they were crazy or tripping on acid--maybe both. When I finally got to Jamaica station, I had two hours to wait until my train departed, so I sat and watched people move through the station. The sheer number was striking--no different from when I grew up and did the same without thinking about it, but startling after living in small towns for the last 20 years (except for the year in Kyiv). The experience was overwhelming, and gave me my first glimpse into what it must be like for people who move to NYC from elsewhere in the country.
I can't imagine raising children in that environment, and yet my parents raised us in midtown Manhattan, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were no cell phones and midtown was not Disneyland. My youngest son is in 5th grade right now, and he seems young to me; and yet, when I was his age, I walked 12 blocks to and from school each day with my younger brother, and that seemed completely normal. The occasional addled person would yell at us, and the Hari Krishna folks would try to talk to us (the scene in the airport lobby at the beginning of Airplane reminds me of those encounters), but we had very few problems. My brother was struck by a car moving at a very low speed which was turning onto an Broadway, but we made it through those years.
I can't imagine the daily anxiety I'd feel letting our boys do that. I can't imagine the daily hassle of completing basic tasks like getting to and from work, or buying groceries. But then again, my boys don't know the exhilarating feeling of being independent in a big city, and being able to move freely through it.