Monday, April 1, 2019

Back and Forth



    To travel between big city and little city (a town?) within the short period of  a week,  invites comparisons that may be  shallow but  inevitable.
    City mouse, country mouse,  I go between Washington, D.C. (730,000 more or less) and Billings, (109,000 and growing) several times a year to see family. Each visit brings to the fore an ever sharper sense of contrast, large and small, between two worlds. The move requires wearing a mask in each place - the comic one, that shows both a happy and sad face.   Billings, the largest city in Montana, is composed mainly of casinos, banks and shopping malls, one of which is home to a "Christian Automotive" garage.
    Washington, by comparison,  at leasts the part I inhabit, is given over to monuments, offices, and - surprisingly  - trees.It's nickname is, in fact, City of Trees. Nary an obtruding neon sign.  Commerce is undercut by convention. And if excess curiosity and courtesy  among strangers is rare, it does happen sometimes on the subway (Metro) when the offer of a seat is made to an obviously old or pregnant woman. The New York subway exists to entertain. There is no shame in staring, no crime in making noise. Panhandlers alight at several stops, with or without instruments.
    In Billings I am given a friendly and totally unexpected "thanks for coming" from one of the attendants in the vast Goodwill store where I've gone to look for a used lamp. When my car overheats to a dangerous degree on a downtown street, a woman rushes out of a nearby restaurant to offer me a jug of water and finds on the spot - her husband, possibly - a mechanic to assess the situation. He is sure that I've sprung a leak in a hose that he can't quite find and urges me not to drive in case I harm the engine. The car is 20 years old with 120,000 or more miles on it but worth saving. The woman, who may be the owner of the Mexican restaurant I spy outside the film theater, tells me to keep the jug. When I attempt to pay the mechanic, he waves me off and walks away with a warning to watch the heating gauge. Delayed, I go inside to see a movie halfway through and the ticket taker tells me not to bother paying and suggests I stay after the intermission for the second half of the feature.
    A Billings' Lyft driver, whom I call,is a construction worker with a specialty in roof repair. "People here are mean," he says giving as an example the indifference of citizenry to others down on their luck. He mentions the sick man on a sidewalk whom he one time tried to help by hailing passing cars.  And what can explain the sight of casino parking lots full of cars every afternoon but an emptiness, a longing for company at whatever price. More suicides in Montana than almost anywhere else, I read.
   Washington offers a bustling street life as substitute for a social life every person needs.
 Then consider the metropolis - New York. Teeming masses in the millions yet somehow. possibly because of vast numbers, individuals often strive  to connect  on the spot.   Two minutes out of Pennsylvania Station recently, I was standing around noon near a bus stop leaning out into the street to see if my bus was coming. "You waiting for the M120," I heard a woman say to me. Maybe she just wished to confirm that she would have company on the bus. Maybe she wanted to help a stranger, as often happens there in public.  I felt instantly in tune with the rhythm of the street, overrun that time of day with hungry citizens. This would be no less the case inside the train station  when I was leaving. A man waiting for a track signal to come up on the board was observing the scene beside me - the ultimate diverse parade  that included an aggressive panhandler whose efforts soliciting were in vain. We stood together, watching the action and commenting back and forth on whether he would score. Then our track was announced and we hurried to get in line for our train.