City, Breathing


Foot on the brake two cars back from the red light, I catch a flash of motion over my left shoulder. A bicycle messenger glides past at high speed like a barracuda, snapping his head left and right to see if the coast is clear. He hardly slows down, dashing through the intersection. A woman in a sleek navy suit, waiting for the light at the crosswalk, checks her smart phone with one hand. It's 6:45 in the city and the morning sun angles orange between the gray cement edifices like the day's first jolt of caffeine.

The city is its own organism. It hums, it seethes, it moves on its own power. City councils and zoning boards, police and fire departments, laws and courts and the unspoken social order that keeps hotdog vendors on their own respective corners barely begin to describe the essential nature of the city. As the saying goes, the sum is greater than the parts. Those people ostensibly in charge can only influence the works when it comes right down to it. They do not decide; they cajole. The nudge. They try, try, try. Cities take lives and characters of their own depending on endless factors, just like the history of anyone you've ever met takes on his or her character from a lifetime of influences and experiences.

The ambient jangle of cities can lull the people inside them into a kind of hypnotic, buzzy trance. It's easy to see why. If a city visitor or resident didn't somehow compartmentalize the input of disparate signals, he or she wouldn't be able to function. There would be no music in the symphony; there would simply be a cacophony of sounds, unrelated.

But today I'm sitting in traffic, absorbing the buzz differently. The barracuda bicyclist has a beauty to him completely different from the Mondrian formality of cold architectural blocks. Each car at this busy intersection is a cell in the bloodstream, containing singular, discrete stories, all heading somewhere, somewhere, always somewhere. There's salsa music coming from the truck just in front of me, there's a police whistle a block or two away, there's the drum of my own heart beat, keeping an eye on the crowded intersection two cars up.

The light goes green, and my thrumming traffic lane slides into motion. Things are happening today. Aware that I've filled my car filled with thousands of dollars of camera gear and rigging, I smile at the duality represented by the simple action of easing my foot off the brake. Today I'm here to capture some essential aspect of the living, ungraspable life of the city, an observer recording what he sees. But I am also aware that in doing so, I am very much a part of the cellular corpus that makes the city breathe in the first place, and therefore one tiny, participant reason why it's the city holds mystery, edgy promise, and endless potential.


P.S. Next week's post: life outside the city.

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