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COLUMN SIX: Eyes on the city

Endurance by observation, minus seeing BY SAMUEL PICCOLO Special to the VOICE Many years from now, when I face the firing squad or the bumper of a self-driving bus or the cancer or however it is I am fated to meet my end, I will remember the distant

Endurance by observation, minus seeing


Many years from now, when I face the firing squad or the bumper of a self-driving bus or the cancer or however it is I am fated to meet my end, I will remember the distant day when my parents took me to the city for the first time. I was about seven or so and had finally managed to badger them into taking me to the Hockey Hall of Fame. This visit was made over the Christmas holidays, and as we crossed the Skyway our car shuddered in the thrashing wind and made me too frightened to take a long look down to the bay, where floes of ice were beginning to stitch themselves together for the season. My father maneuvered us through the traffic and parked on the second level of a garage, and before leaving we stopped in the stairwell to secure our hats and scarves and minimize our exposed skin. My mother bent down, then, and spoke to me softly.

“You will see many homeless people today. And as hard as it is, you just have to keep walking. We can try to help some, but…,” her voice trailed off.

The walk between the steaming Chinese restaurant and the comfortable insides of the trophy room left me chilled. Seeing those people, mostly men, all crumpled under ratty blankets on bits of cardboard, or, if fortunate, on top of a subway grate, was a shocking experience. For me, eye contact was difficult to make, but after initiated nearly impossible to break. I at once couldn’t look and couldn’t look at anything else. I would not have been surprised to find a spent needle in an alley in St. Catharines, or encounter the carcass of a half-eaten deer in Pelham, but my eyes were not accustomed to seeing human beings in circumstances so incomprehensibly worse than my own.

Many winters later, in Montreal, I was walking at night near the river with a friend when a man approached us and asked for help. He was stuck in the city he said, without money or means of transportation. He was supposed to be en route to Massachusetts for surgery “on this,” at which point he opened his coat to reveal an enormous growth protruding from beneath his ribs. Under the dim light of the street lamps it dully shined, a crimson boil the size of a cantaloupe. It remains the most repulsive thing I have ever seen on another person, and when my friend, who was from the city, had dispatched with him, I gagged, several times, and thought I would vomit.

About a month ago I left home on a trip to Mexico.

The Greater Mexico City Area has a population of 21.2 million, a staggering statistic unsurprising to anyone who has landed at its airport. Crossing from Texas into Mexico, we flew above land mostly unmarked by signs of habitation. The most striking characteristic of the northern part of the country were the fires—wild and agricultural—that speckled the terrain. They must have been quite large to have been visible from 30,000 feet; at their bases, the flames gnawing about for more fuel, the smoke swelling and rising. From the plane the entire enterprise appeared as sculpture, the plumes of smoke vaporous columns standing on singed ground.

As bits of life became visible, the plane began to descend and it did so for a long while, passing over miles and miles of unending city, then a graveyard of abandoned aircraft, before we finally landed as we would have anywhere else in the world. Inside the airport the routine was also familiar. Moving walkways, the din of travelers, the odours of plastic and scalded coffee. Poorly positioned signage pointed me to Customs and baggage claim. We arrivals followed the rules. I was not immediately assured that there were rules outside of the airport.

In his book, Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie discusses what he calls “city eyes,” the inevitable tendency of urban dwellers not to see the deeply unpleasant misfortune afflicting those on edge of society. He writes: “When you have city eyes you cannot see the invisible people, the men with elephantiasis of the balls and the beggars in boxcars don't impinge on you, and the concrete sections of future drainpipes don't look like dormitories.”

I have spent a lot of time acquiring city eyes since that night with the crimson boil man in Montreal, but I certainly didn’t have Mexico City-eyes upon arriving here. Nothing is invisible without those eyes during the first few days, and my eyes have seen it all. They have seen traffic so clotted that it is safe—perhaps even advised, to prevent conflict—for drivers to nap behind the wheel. They've seen micro-economies emerge in this gridlock, vendors meandering from window to window offering up breakfast and single cigarettes and newspapers and popsicles. Some vendors are boys barely tall enough to reach in through the window.

They've seen more police than ever before, doing less than they have ever seen police do, including RIDE checks that stop cars only in one lane and allow other drivers to skirt around unbothered. They have seen museum installations that they couldn’t believe existed. They've seen the mountains, briefly, in the morning, before they are shrouded in smog from the traffic; and yet more traffic when thunderous rains dispersed the smog but submerged the streets in a foot of flash-flood. They have seen houses so brilliantly painted that those elsewhere seem very stale. They have seen hundreds, thousands of advertisements, in which most of the models look not to be Mexican at all, or, if they are, to have descended from the Swedish sides of their families.

It isn’t always apparent, when we live our lives, just how much we must subconsciously simplify things in order to make the world comprehensible. Driving a car does not involve thinking about the mechanics of combustion engines or the thickness of brake-pads; if it did, we’d likely be unable to pay enough attention to avoid accidents. Likewise, it is near impossible to live in cities, day-to-day, without city eyes.

But sometimes there are things more important than living day-to-day. This is why we go on vacation—to break from the quotidian. When my parents took me to the Hall of Fame when I was seven, they were doubtless trying to make that day a special one, a visit that I’d remember. I have almost entirely forgotten what I saw inside the building, and these days I rarely even watch hockey. But I will never forget what my mother said in that parking garage stairwell.

Someone else’s mother once told me that she always thought it “really odd” that other parents talked of “creating memories” for their children. Her point was that we have no control over what the young—or anyone—will remember, and it almost certainly won’t be what we predict. “Attention is a form of prayer,” she said, quoting a writer I hadn't read. “That is the only lesson.”

Life cannot be lived entirely in prayer; attention cannot be paid all of the time. But vacations, be they to nearby cities, or to Mexico, are reminders that such layers of living are still there, and, perhaps, with luck, we’ll remember parts of them too. ♦