Friday morning, I left my friend’s house where I’d been dogsitting while she’d been giving birth. Their house was on one of those tightly wound plastic townhome clusters that form little islands dotting all the major roads I’ve driven along. The area where they live, Owings Mills, is particularly dense with them.
Ostensibly a neighborhood, there is little that’s neighborhood-y about it. There is no community center, no meeting place for people to hang. Again, it’s an island, one without a center, a cluster of living spaces jammed together and stuck just off a major road with the view of a large storage facility and an even larger Holiday Inn blaring its neon red sign into the sky like something out of Rocko’s Modern Life (which is some circular logic, given that Rock’s Modern Life is a parody of exactly this division of real life). It isn’t even truly suburban; it doesn’t sprawl. It’s like someone took a slice out of a few urban blocks (albeit one constructed out of much flimsier materials) but left out the corner store, the bar, mailboxes, and generally anything that might offer some sensory delights or be conducive to human interaction. Actually, the feeling is that someone thought they were being really clever with the layout of this neighborhood, but in the end just made something that makes sense to nobody and doesn’t fit into the practice of living.
The house itself (and by extension every other house there) is supremely comfortable, with staircases wide enough for two people to walk comfortably side by side and a big island in an even bigger kitchen, from which you can plug in any appliance or screen you want and watch the wall where you would be remiss not to hang a TV. If I had one, I would without a doubt turn it into a tea shop. The only difficulty would be parking, as all the spots are marked off for their individual houses and there are about 5 guest parking spots in the whole web of intersecting streets. The house is made for you to never leave.
Needing an oil change before hitting the road, I turned onto a stretch of Reisterstown that immediately felt different from the rest. It’s perhaps a mile, perhaps less, but along that mile are things that can only belong in a community: someone’s photography studio, a family diner, mini storage, a couple auto places that got high reviews for their honest service, very old houses, and greenery. On either side of that mile are plastic strip malls with Toys-R-Us, etc. Is Owings Mills so steeped in isolation that just driving in a car with windows up for one mile on a major street beholding signs of more connected living enough to make me feel better, in fact, to make me feel completely different from how I felt five minutes ago, as if I had entered a different world? Well, I had. While I waited for the oil change, I went to the diner to load up on coffee and stray observations.
It seemed everyone there had a story, a story playing out within the world or human collective or however you want to frame it, but my function amid all these stories was to be like a ghost stalking among them and recording them. To drink them in, parse them, and in some way preserve what is meaningful in them, their essence, or to make some sort of art out of it. I felt this more strongly that morning than on the typical day. I have felt this before on other days; while taking the city bus for my old job before I bought a car, for one. The same epiphany hit me then, of finding my purpose in drinking in the world and being drawn to interesting individuals and groups within it, that contain within themselves an entire world that will die when they die. So many tiny societies flicker out each day, and it is my theory that there are people who better encapsulate and embody the world they live in. They are like sponges and models of it. Their entire being is a living, breathing machine that synthesizes their surroundings into something complete, for, like I, they, too have processed and analyzed and lived out in full, with love and enthusiasm and drama, what they have been subjected to… and where does their gold go when they go? It has to be passed on, and caught. This problem has been the beating heart or the thorn or the inner glowing gem of my life: that we live and die and nothing is saved of it. I remember the first day I consciously asked myself about this, in elementary school after a big snow fall, while standing on tiptoe and looking out my bedroom window at all the snow.
Unfortunately, these things are supremely difficult to express. The movie plays in my mind, snippets of conversations and motivations, of desires and habits and worldviews…. But even directly asking people about their experiences, they cannot relate to you what they are – they give you their interpretations of parts. People do not know what they are. Essence cannot be communicated in words but only through breathing together. Through time.
So for now I’ll drink coffee and watch people and be drawn to places where community exists and people mesh and net together, keeping organizations running, operating diners and chatting with the sames who pass through, or coming in in a tight knit tuple to rehash a decades-long relationship and socialize with one another in complaints over coffee, while the new apartment complexes keep popping up and the pressures from either side encroach.