On the Fringe of the City

A recent move has me living on the edge of the city I used to inhabit, looking in a little wistfully. It’s a temporary arrangement, but for several months, I’ll be driving to work in the mornings, blasting along a major commuter highway to the north shore and through Boston. It has me seeing a different side of the city I know; and that reminds me that no matter how much you can get to know a city, there is always another way to know it. We can always be different people, looking at the city from the perspective of office workers or street dwellers, late night partiers or garbage collectors, suburban commuters or city loyalists. There is always another way to see. And what we writers must know is that there is always another way to look.

As a car-owning commuter these days, I see a lot of traffic. I also see the highways that circle viciously about the borders of most cities; and I see the corporate-and-big-box stores that form depressing haloes around most American cities these days. As I head outward I see the sad strip malls and signs for discount furniture and kitchen and tile and pet supplies and food, so much fast food. I wonder who stops at the restaurants in particular, who would want to sit in the window of one of these places and hear the whine of traffic. I think these places are mostly for people who are tired and lonely, the ones whose dinners have been cancelled, whose spouses aren’t home that night. And then, there’s something reassuring in being able to get something hot and mushy and head home with a box warming the passenger seat of the car.

But I still find these outer rings fairly bleak; like who decided every American city had to be surrounded in the same way? It makes me want to live right in the middle again, where I can avoid such sights. But I also want to avoid such snobbery and disdain. These are quintessentially American sights, after all, and if I want to understand my place, I have to experience it without judgement. When a car cuts me off or speeds rudely by, I remember a writing teacher telling me, Always imagine they’re rushing their sick child to the hospital. I conjure the image, and I feel a little warmer; I’m able to see a story, not just a depressing blankness. The trip down route 1 or route 128 or route anything is a line that pulls us all home; the late afternoon sun is warm on our backs or shoulders; you can see houses and stores and church steeples past the high sound barriers of the highway, flickering through the trees.

In that way, the process of writing and imagining is a fundamentally life-affirming act. It affirms that we all have stories, we all have sympathies and concerns, and we all have dignity, all the ones crossing in and out of the trash-ringed city, hurrying home or onward, with feverish children in the back seat.