Tag Archives: Personal Essay

The Life of Cities

Everywhere, we are a stranger arriving into light

✎  Wayne K. Spear | April 3, 2018 · Essay

subway

E

VERYONE IN A CITY is a unwritten message, a scriptless actor, a hidden quantity suspended between two moments of familiarity: the known they have left behind, and the known toward which they rush, through the tower atrium where calèches and footmen once passed. You are the next in the line, the subsequent fare, a neuron of commerce passing the bill, to a woman who pretends she is happy to see you. In a city, you befriend alleys and skylines, the shadows cast by skyscrapers, and the smell of foreign shops. You embrace the philosophy of the crane, its iron doctrine of destruction and rebirth, and you peer into the bones of a gestating condo, where love will take root, or not, among strangers of the future.

In a city, you wear your anonymity like a childhood sweater. We are all theoretical, without sin, mute yet plenipotentiary, emerging into the rush-hour light with undeclared purpose. Mere inconvenience compels us toward the sterile momentary intimacy of crowded subways. A portal disgorges us, severally, seeds to the wind. I have never seen you, and I will never see you again. The life of the city is the purest form of grace, a work of love, a perfunctory cohabitation without grievance or jealousy, without expectation or agenda, without the unbearable sweetness of hope.

We meet in moments of city inconvenience, with our burdens and propositions. You provide directions, hold the door open, carry the stroller down the stair, lend a stranger the charger for your phone. You feel embarrased to ask for these things. It is an imposition, perhaps even a mild trasngression of the unspoken compact. In the city we are, all of us, unto ourselves. We go out into the world with the requisite provisions, mindful of the hazards. The city is a living, unaccomodating beast. We accept this and get on our way.

A city is a bookshelf in a house where everyone writes, but does not read. The idea of reading, a vision of the forever- unread and unreadable, intoxicates us. But in the village, everyone has memorized the stories. There are no secrets and no strangers in the town. In town, you are an open book, a fully parsed sentence, always Mary or John or Maria. You have only one face, and you wear it wherever you go, to every human purpose. In town, you give the cashier an accounting of yourself, obliged to the currency of human curiosity, tethered to the law of ceremony and consanguinity, forever reconciling the ledger of entanglements.

The city is not better than the town. Nothing is better than another thing. Everywhere, in the skin of the earth, there are cracks and crevices. We call this place by one name, and by another name we come to know another place, or we think that we know, but nothing truly has a name. Everywhere, the road we are on will one day end suddenly, like the wrinkles of a palm. Everywhere, we are exchanging bits of data and drawing from our accounts. Everywhere, we are between two places. Everywhere, we are a stranger arriving into light.

Life, edited

Would I even notice the absence of cream in my coffee, once my mind had let go the idea of it?

✎  Wayne K. Spear | January 18, 2018 • Essay

I

N THE MORNING I make my coffee, sometimes I walk to the nearby cafe. When the barista sees me coming, she, or he, begins to make my drink: a large Americano. It is a routine whose origins I am unable to summon. There was a first time that I ordered an Americano at this shop, a first time I drank coffee. I don’t remember these firsts, I only know that they are so. Just as there are lasts.

My earliest memories of coffee are of the church basement where we gathered after service. An enormous stone building, with stained glass windows and many rows of pews, benches for the choir, a pipe organ, a vaulted ceiling. And below, a gymnasium, a Sunday school room, a large kitchen. For years we attended church on Sundays. There must have been weddings and funerals also, but I have no recollection of them. I have seen sun-bleached photos, of aunts and uncles, the happy brides and grooms whose future self will divorce and remarry, or perhaps not, retaining across the decades some small semblance of this person frozen in time, covered in wedding confetti, surrounded by those I remember as once living among us.

We went to church, as most others did. Afterward we gathered in the basement to drink coffee made in enormous steel percolators, or tea from mismatched cups and saucers, donated by kind ladies with blue hair. The same ladies who made the trays of triangle sandwiches. In one palm, the adults balancing a cup and saucer, in the other hand a wedge of sandwich nested in a paper napkin. The women in polyester dresses of harvest gold, the men in rayon jackets and chocolate brown slacks, shirts with enormous collars, the indistinct voices of grown-ups punctuated by the laughter of children. The kind ladies with blue hair appear from the kitchen, take note of the trays, and retreat. One imagines them forever baking, forever replenishing the silver trays with triangle sandwiches, even now.

One day we stopped going to church. Why, I don’t know, any more than I know why we started. Nothing was said about it, to me at least. We went, and then we didn’t. As the last of many other things arrives, must arrive, the end comes but without fanfare. “Goodbye,” you say, and “see you later,” to someone you will never say hello to again.

How does a ritual become a ritual? I used to drink my coffee with cream. I would often find myself without, sometimes on cold mornings, the coffee already made, me in my pyjamas not wanting to go outside. I couldn’t bear coffee without cream, back then. I found it too bitter, undrinkable, nasty even. And against this, the going out into the cold, to get cream from the nearby convenience store. First I would have to dress. Or at the least put on a coat and boots. I would hope to find enough change in the laundry dish. If the dish was emptied of laundry money I would have to use the bank machine. It was a scenario I grew tired of repeating.

I read that a person can learn to like something they find unpleasant, like black coffee. The article said it takes, on average, fifteen attempts. I think of the first time I drank Guinness, in a Kingston pub, on a cold December night. I found it disgusting, and yet the next week I was back, drinking another. And another after that. I became curious to know what black coffee would taste like to my re-calibrated brain. Would I even notice the absence of cream, once my mind had let go the idea of it, as it had let go so many other things? Habits, lovers, misguided notions, the many sordid details.

At first it was unpleasant. But I was surprised at how quickly I was able to edit the cream from my morning ritual and not miss it. I oughtn’t have been. After all, one day I disliked Guinness. And another day I sat in the Wellington, my back to the stage where Gerry O’Kane played his guitar and sang, drinking my Guinness at the windowfront table with my friends, walking home later in the clear December air, holding the hand of a woman to whom I was not romantically inclined when we arrived at the pub hours before. Life before and after, coffee with and without cream, love and loss, weddings and funerals. Sunday arrives. I drink my coffee black, my routine simplified, no need of cream or of choirs, of expired passions, of the rows of creaking pews, the moulding hymnals, or of kind old women with blue hair, gone but not to heaven.

What if I am not real?

bigstock-camera-in-tv-studio-63787357

My face was an inch from the wall and I was shouting my lines as fast and loud as seemed possible. “Faster,” came the command. “LOUDER!” I sent a hand down my red, television power tie, took a deep breath, and shot my lines as if I’d just landed on the French coast and either had to repel the Germans with my words or die on this horrible beach. I would have gladly had death.

Read More