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Issue Six / Essay
“The sheer volume of people living in such close proximity is often the source of friction. In the hot heat season, tempers rise and patience wanes”

Finding Quiet in the Jungle Urbanus

Words by Saer Richards Photographs by Nicole Franzen

City dwellers face challenges when it comes to finding peace. Our writer documents the experience of finding calm when you’re faced with noise pollution and urban rumbling.

The city is a voracious beast; it consumes many a man. Unforgiving, it reserves the ability to tame it for the resolutely brave or flawlessly stupid. Maybe they are one and the same.

It bucks and charges during the day while throngs of multicolored people on foot and in cars ripple uniformly through its streets, like specks navigating a wild creature’s back. They’re connected in an organic way, yet remain as separate from each other as one hair shaft is from the next.

It’s been said that living in a city hardens a person, takes away that element of their being that makes them empathically human. It certainly does something. But that should be expected when in the presence of an entity wild.

The particular characteristics of the city can make it feel utterly foreign to those that have never lived in one. Graffiti is splashed across surfaces, marking the fabric of the terrain. Street fashion runs the gamut of conventional to avant-garde. Buskers play homemade tunes on instruments from lands far and near, singing songs of love and fear, joy and pain. Buildings are unusually tall. They stretch into the sky, tops tapering off into the fog of low-lying clouds. Their magnitude makes them otherworldly, not least because they have touched the sky.

The city soundtrack plays on repeat: car horns honk, bike messenger brakes screech, manhole covers hiss with dubious steam, sirens blare at almost every street corner. People loudly talk, laugh and yell into mobile phones. And deep, deep down, the city rumbles.

It’s no wonder that most walk around plugged in. White ear-buds and strings are a giveaway that they are listening to music or talking on the phone; some have glazed eyes, absorbed in audio books. Much about the city encourages separation; it’s a wonder anyone can connect.

Being carried on the back of this beast leaves inhabitants emotionally and physically scuffed. The sheer volume of people living in such close proximity is often the source of friction. In the hot heat season, tempers rise and patience wanes. Colder times bury everyone under layers of flannel, which stymies the barely existent desire to interact.

The fear to speak to each other exists as a method of self-preservation. Everyone is striving for the same goal—mastery over this creature they ride each day. Scared to reveal their strategy to the next man, they eye each other suspiciously, like prisoners privy to the answer in a quest for liberation.

This seemingly harsh exterior hides the man within, stifles the unmistakable empathic instinct to nurture, share and commune.

And yet we do.

Occasionally, just sometimes.

A friend of mine traveled to Sicily for a holiday with friends. They found a café, old and beautiful, off the beaten path. “What could be more memorable than coffee in Sicily?” she asked. They entered the establishment and requested a cup each, to go. The proprietor gestured for them to sit. “To go” was a foreign concept there. What rush could there possibly be that would deny one the pleasure of pausing to savor a cup of coffee? Until denied the option of walking with her drink, she’d never realized how city living had made her accustomed to the mobility of her meals.

I was born in a large city on one continent and currently live in a big city on another; this brings specific ignorances. Especially when it comes to perceiving how nature and landscape in areas less populous behave. Learning that night stars routinely cover the skies like glitter on a dark velvet quilt, or that the moon can light a path with a glow similar to that of a neon bulb, was surprising. These things seemed too fantastical to be true. But they’re real. I saw them. Once.

The city has its own night. Identified mostly by the fact that its pace alters. Swarming cars outnumber people two to one; headlights emit a brilliance that creates a feigned daylight. They illuminate streets and the sky, obscuring the heavenly luminaries in a fluorescent fog of tungsten. If by day the creature bucks, at night it certainly heaves.

But no matter how wild a beast, all creatures have to take rest; to retreat and seek calm.

City landscapes are deceptive. At the seams are glimmers of nature;  city dwellers enforce a peace in their lives by seeking out these crevices to create warm and most welcoming moments.

I shall never forget the first time I dined on a residential rooftop in the heart of New York. In almost any other setting, such a notion would seem simply absurd at best: food, candles, blankets, tables—carefully carried onto a roof. But we wanted to collectively take respite from the beast. We sat on top of the city. Evaluating its landscape of ever-present lights—our equivalent of the stars on a clear country night. The usual noises tapered off as the beast’s rumble seemingly calmed. We didn’t notice what was going on underneath, only the conversation among us. We told stories by candlelight that flickered like campfire; no one noticed when they extinguished and left us in darkness.

It is the retreats of rooftops, speakeasies, basement cafés and small apartment gardens that force the beast to become tranquil. These spaces are familiar in some other terrains, but unique in the context of a big city. For us they are our sanctuaries. The places where we can hear each other over the roar, and allow the energy around us to recede. We are allowed to be empathetic here—to share and commune before donning our coats and stepping back into the tumult that requires a force field of defensiveness for survival’s sake.

These moments are a cure for the common way of life.

We don’t have the forests and brooks that are home to the sound of birds chirping and the rush of water bubbling. We don’t need to. We have our unique retreat, in ways only a city dweller can. Ours is an untamed city that we know how to lull to sleep.

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