I go to college in a mid-size city; about 200,000 people live here, 25,000 of whom attend the same university I do. I’ve been more than decently content so far: it’s large enough to provide a good amount of entertaining things to do and look at while still maintaining the freedom to walk home at three in the morning without getting mugged (or at least without the absolute guarantee of getting mugged). The city is also decently clean and home to a pretty good art and music scene, which is great for the dying-to-get-out hipster in me. It’s no New York or Chicago, or even St. Louis. It has maybe three museums, and its buses run once every hour. It’s not the big cities’ wider selection of activities and culture, although I would gladly welcome it, that I crave. And although I wish I had better access to public transportation and the ability to commute by foot, I can do without these, too.
What I want from the big city is to be a stranger. I want to walk outside every morning and be anonymous. I don’t want people to know me. Anywhere. It’s not because I don’t like them. It’s because I do like them. I’m too sensitive, too empathetic to be smiled at by people passing by in their cars, as is the custom here in Southern-charm-filled Knoxville. I get emotionally attached to people that give a polite nod or say hello when I’m waiting to cross the street with them; I concoct their life stories in my mind and internalize them; I wonder what their names are, what it would be like to know them, to be their friend. Just today, I passed a woman, a complete stranger, on the street, and she said “hi” to me. She was wearing faded denim shorts, probably cut off from a pair worn in during her teenage years, a loose beige blouse and a straw hat. Her Southern accent told me that her outfit choice was dictated by necessity, to shield herself from the sun and heat of sticky Tennessee summers, and not necessarily by the fashion trends of the moment. And although it was nice to know this about her, once I did, she became a real person. I lost the privilege of making up her life story, forfeited the luxury of remaining a stranger, pleasantly aloof, comfortably foreign.
It’s this separation from others’ souls that makes the everyday bearable by leaving me unburdened, free of the emotional baggage, real or imaginary (most often both), of others that I choose to carry. This is why I long for the big city. I want to look at strangers all day long, and I want them to remain strangers until I choose otherwise. I don’t want to know who they are. Not because I don’t care about them, but because I do. Because when they tell me their name and where they’re from, I’ll want to know more, know everything. But that won’t happen; all that will remain of them in my head is an abbreviated biography and a blurry thumbnail photo, half-reality, half-constructed by my mind’s eye. And this is disappointing.
Sometimes I separate myself from other people by connecting to the city itself, at least the physical aspect of it. I walk on the road, in the gutter, hearing the cars go whooshing past me, or clanking past me, or blaring music past me. I love the mixed smells of exhaust and cigarette butts. I want to hold on to these things; I want them to surround me; I want to walk down the street for long enough that all the people turn into objects, too. Even me. I want to be a thing. I don’t want to be hit on by a handful of frat boys blasting rap out of their SUV, only to later see them on campus. If you’re going to hit on me, I want to be able to pretend that you’ll never forget me, the image of me walking down the sidewalk, my hair blowing in the wind, whatever. This is selfish, and I hate that I think it. But I do, and I don’t want to run into you and remember who you are, when you have no idea who I am.
Maybe that’s why I want the city so badly. Because it is a stranger to me, and I am a stranger to it. And this is beautiful.