Thursday, May 31, 2007

In the Maelstromboli

[Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore]

From the RF diary:

"For those engaged in the flows & flurries of contemporary living: what is the challenge?
The challenge is to be present in the maelstrom & the nonsense; respond to its demands where necessary; and not react to its pressures.
The word for this is freedom, but not a freedom outside the bustle; it is holding a still point within the bustle.
Outside: nonsense. Inside: purpose, poise, grace. Outside, the bustle continues."

Boy, that one really struck home. Wish that advice was available back in 1982; back when I could have really used it.

I studied in Baltimore from 1982-86, living in a broom closet called an efficiency on North Calvert Street. It wasn't precisely downtown, where the tall hotel and financial institutions border the more famous Inner Harbor area, but it was deep urban living. Far more urban than I had ever experienced before.

Before embarking on this four year stay in Balto, I considered myself to be a hip guy, wise to the world and full of being impressed by myself.classroom, but I was a first class country bumpkin by Baltimore standards. Charleston, even as capitol of the lovely West Virginia, is hardly more than a small river town. 2003 population was around 51,000, so we ain't exactly the metro capital of the USA. I studied in-state for my undergraduate degree, so it was a really insular life that I lived before the big city. Insulation and comfort zones-that's me.

What Fripp speaks about was so true for me and still is: how do you keep your head when everything around you is so chaotic and confusing? How do you keep any inner sense of peace and purpose when the world about you does everything it can to upset this balance? Sometimes it just ain't possible. Not with anyone with any level of sensitivity, no matter how much the human parade amuses you.

My first visit to Balto involved a cab ride to my guitar teacher's house. Immediately upon settling in the back, I could smell an old familiar smell.

The cabbie quickly bridged the gap. "Man, the chick that just got out didn't have any cash for a tip, so we smoked a joint."

Far be it for me to judge, but I was a little shocked by his candor and the fact that his driving very well could be impaired.

He started a racial tirade, freely using the N word, gesturing wildly with his hands, as he drove like a roman candle through the dense traffic. He nearly drove over the feet of a young black guy crossing the street. The poor pedestrian's look was one of amazement.

Man, all these n..s! When the race wars start, I'm going to be ready." He then fired off an imaginary machine gun, complete with sound effects, shouting "Yeah, I'm going to kill all you [insert profanity here]."

He then realized the psycho gyrations he had just gone through and did a half-hearted apology. This was only the beginning, my friends.

To save a little time, I'll do a bullet style synopsis of some of the highlights of that time period. "Purpose, poise and grace?" while this stuff is around you? Good luck!

  • Seeing a goth girl for the first time, dressed in complete black regalia including black nail polish, sitting on the steps of a health food store, playing with a large snake.

  • Watching a fight erupt between a record store clerk and a customer break out because the customer was harassing a female in the store.

  • Listening to a mirror sun glasses wearing, hooded, staff carrying, self-proclaimed prophet rant in a public area about how "black people need more role models like white people have in Diana and Prince Charles" and peppering his sermon with Bachman Turner Overdrive lyrics.

  • Listening to the man who lived upstairs who talked very loudly to himself and would shout out: "Hoo-eee." like he was being punched in the gut. Or "That's it, man." Or after long silence, break out laughing.

  • The Moonies, who regularly held court in Mount Vernon, approached me one day. They had a blackboard set up with words like God, man, earth, etc., written all over it, with arrows going this way and that. "I want to talk to you about concept," the Asian woman stated as if I had was already willing to philosophize about such existential topics. As she went about her rambling dialogue, I noticed that two more Moonies had gathered next to me. I felt a bit like roadkill with some gathering crows. These birds were looking for soft, naive and idealistic minds to bring into the Moonie fold. One guy seemed like a fairly normal, sincere guy who had just gotten a bit lost with these lunatics. He scanned my face and maybe he saw a little interest while I stood there listening to the universe according to the very Reverendless Sun Myung Moon, so he spoke up to clarify: "We are trying to build a better world." As much as a target that I could have been in my life for these cults, I was further along the journey and not susceptible to any crazy outside of my own. My answer was flippant and blunt: "Good luck with that. I gotta go buy some deodorant." The look on his face said everything. (Moonie propaganda here. Read and laugh. Everybody wants to rule the world.)

In short, I still find cities exciting, but rife with personal anxiety. To me, they seem like pure madness stem to stern; like some post-apocalyptic chaos that nearly reaches critical mass. I can not find inner peace in them, even when tucked away in a Marriott Hotel. The turmoil outside disrupts my sense of equilibrium. I don't know how people can live in them. But I did discover a little secret while a student back in Baltimore.

It's called beer and after a few of them, even big cities seem to be less threatening and more amusing.

1 comment:

wthii said...

Bumpkinhood gets a bad rap; non-urban life is much to be preferred. I can no longer live in a city. Even mild mannered Charleston seems overly busy to me after a few days.

To be fair, I think you stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire. I mean, Baltimore is to other large northeastern cities as those other large northeastern cities are to the rest of the country. The intensity of Baltimore's urban problems seems greater than those of any other city in the US.

Unless my info is out of date. What do I know? I'm a (happy) bumpkin!