Some cities are like Lisbon – a repulsive cacophony of noises, dilapidation and discordant smells. Other cities, though just as difficult to love, are enticing. I think of London around Notting Hill Gate, or Washington DC once you explore beyond the Mall. Another one is downtown Richmond.
For me a good city is just like a good person – they have suffered, and suffered often enough, to give them some sort of, while not exactly patience, at least resignation. There is much wisdom in resignation. For the believer resignation is called “fate”, for the romantic it is called “destiny”, for the desperate it is called “luck”. By whatever name it is called, resignation is only encountered when the person has suffered enough, lost nearly everything.
And how much is enough? I think of my kids, and how one of them barely peeps even with a raging fever, while the other wants to be rushed to the Emergency Room for a hang nail. I think of my running buddies of times past, some of whom would run with injuries enough to stun a rhino, while others would stop at the mere twinge of muscle. Each knew their limits. How am I to judge which one suffers more than the other?
There is a tone to those who have successfully resigned which borders on enlightenment. Some cities are enlightened in that way, like Venice, and very much unlike Vegas.
A person that comes to mind when I think of this enlightened resignation is Pedro. He was a Portuguese immigrant, and janitor in the apartment building where I grew up as a kid. He was a shabby, unkempt, small and frail man, missing many teeth, with dubious hygienic standards and the strong pungent breath of the constantly alcoholized.
Even though his appearance was not one to inspire much confidence he had many things going for him. For starters, he was always kind to all us kids in the building, no matter what mischief we got into, and we – ahem – got into plenty.
He would always smile. A toothless, hazy sort of smile, but I remember all adults being moved by him. As a kid I had no inkling of the difficulties which are the lot of any person who is sub-employed in a country like Brasil. He probably was poor, since I never saw him take a bus (the common and cheap means of transportation), instead he would bike everywhere.
But my most potent memory of him is his whistling – if you could call it that. The man had a many-octave range and was capable of reproducing many songs, classical or popular. You could hear him from the window of my ninth floor room as he went about sweeping the sidewalks, trimming the bushes, cleaning the trash bins – putting out fires (ahem)…
Looking back now I imagine that he had achieved a truce with life. Life screamed at him, he whistled back.
I am not certain when was the last time I saw him. He is no doubt dead by now. Just a toothless old man, who could whistle like an angel, while hand scrubbing 12 floors of stairs, just to make enough money to survive one more day.
I think of Lisbon, with its large population – what did it do to create that frail immigrant? Cities, like people, deserve their populace. And people, like cities, deserve the place they find themselves in.
What does my current city deserve? What kind of people? What prayers must I pray over the city from my 17th floor window, to be a blessing?
I am thinking about my calling in this city of mine. Be it West End or Southside, the city with many “tribes” (as a friend puts it), there is somewhere where I am the answer to someone’s prayer.
So I am working on trying to personalize everything.
By this I mean: do not use ATMs, instead go inside the bank and talk to a PERSON. Do not use the automatic check out at Kroger’s, instead stand in line with PEOPLE. Make it personal. Make it inconvenient to me. Make sure I make eye contact with the burned out cashier at whatever fast food joint I frequent. Do I know the name of that person I always bump into in the elevator? I am trying to make them real. They and me, are the people that this city deserves!