Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Illusion of Place

Each time I settle anew in a town I didn't know well before backing the UHaul up to my new rental apartment I go through a period where it looks not so much like a movie set as it does a temporary encampment, an oasis of human activity in some brief desert spring of nature's indifference, an indifference that threatens to drift in and cover permanently whatever little projects we've set for ourselves.  When I first arrived in Philadelphia, Center City--Philadelphia's economic and cultural hub--seemed like a dark warren of little streets merely as over-crowded as some Somali refugee camp.  First arriving in Houston for grad school three years ago, to me the wide empty streets seemed uninhabited, and uninhabitable, and the little clusters of restaurants or shopping centers one would find, like desperate denials of the nothingness from which they were scrounged.  New York City, back in the 1990s, felt like an ant hill and smelled faintly like human feces (like Mamet's train cars), a smell I never quite learned not to mind.

Oddly, the places I've lived that have felt most 'permanent' have been the smaller ones, Great Exuma, Missoula, Portland.  They have a less rushed, less sky-scraped feeling, and they're less crowded.

The bigger places in which I've lived--Boston, Seattle, NYC--have always in time grown more rooted in my imagination, if just barely.  Now, when I walk through Center City at night I'm alert to the layers of human inhabitation and building, though the temporariness of each 'layer' still shrouds my awareness more than does the built-up illusion of 'permanence' over time. Buildings always look as if they're crumbling and resurrecting, parks decaying and regrowing, people dying and growing up, generations taking leave of the world and re-inhabiting it, largely indifferent to one another's passing in-and-out. Our sense of place often seems comic to me.

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