Metro, Featured Column, Column

How To Feel Like You Exist In A City

Early on a Sunday morning, Boston is a lonely place—it’s easy to feel as if you don’t yet exist.

The city’s children still have their heads on pillows—dreams let them deny that school will soon claim them again. The elderly are only just rising to dress for church or brunch. Business owners are inside, pulling chairs down from tables, folding clothes neatly on shelves for the eventual Sunday rush. Boston’s 20-somethings, recovering from a Friday and Saturday that blended together, are all at rest in apartments and dorms.

All of them, it seems, except me. It’s 8:40 a.m.—not an ungodly hour—but I’ve still arrived too early for the party, with the streets like a fully set dining room table just before the company has arrived.

The few others who have already started the day make only brief eye contact. Already, we have our hands deep in coat pockets, our shoulders bunched up toward our ears in a futile effort to block winter’s advance. Across the street, two men load packages onto a hand truck. Together, they rattle down Boylston St. I hear them laugh—someone’s told a joke about the night before.

I have 20 minutes before I have to conduct an interview, but I already feel myself gearing up to be social. I realize that I haven’t even used my voice since I awoke that morning—I’d have no way of knowing if it were lost. I clear my throat to reassure myself, and walk past the Public Library.

I look up at the details of the library’s original architecture—the McKim Building, constructed in 1895—and then I look forward in dismay at the library’s modern Johnson Building from the 1970s, all sheer white walls and uninteresting windows, not unlike Boston College’s own O’Neill Library.

But passing by the Johnson Building grants me a sense of reality that the morning had thus far lacked—I catch my reflection in the long windows, and I suddenly feel like I exist, however lonely the sidewalk appears. I can think of only a few times in my life where seeing my own reflection made me feel less alone, somehow more real.

Once during middle school—a time when long, boring days left me wondering if I would ever feel like my life were in motion. I came home from soccer practice and looked at my sweaty face in the mirror, suddenly noticing how my face had grown longer, shadowed by the beginning of facial hair, how life was moving even if I could not observe it happening.

Once during high school—the restaurant we were in had countless mirrors. I would occasionally break eye contact with her to surreptitiously watch us eating and talking together. The reflection told me to slow down, to enjoy this fleeting meal.

This new reflection, however, is not as willing to engage. He walks parallel to me along the sidewalk, long strides, thinking he must look cool in his dark coat, pen marks on his pants from careless hand motions during interviews and note taking in class. He looks like he’s a part of it, this Boston thing. He knows where he’s heading. The streets are no strangers to him, or so he thinks. He looks like he feels old, but God, he must still be in his early 20s. He reaches into his backpack just as I do, pulling out his iPod and pushing in the earbuds. Together, we hit play—a song recommended by a friend begins.

My feet are in Boston but my mind is in London, a new city with strange streets where I will spend five months. I already miss the place through which I currently walk. My reflection looks at me, refusing to break his stride.

Then the window gives way to a revolving door, and he spins away.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic

November 19, 2014