Tag Archives: city

What People Do

“That’s what people do.” So replied the North Dakota farmer when asked why she had sheltered and fed dozens of people whose cars were stranded in a prairie blizzard. That’s what people do. My grandparents in North Dakota would have said the same thing, and in the same tone, as if the reporter were slightly addled to ask in the first place. For them, helping when needed, righting wrongs, and providing comfort were not extraordinary actions but everyday acts, a part of living in a family, a community, and a world.

It’s easy to associate neighborly assistance with small towns or rural areas where families have built connections over generations and people know each other well. The small town where I live is quick to offer help to those in need, from fundraisers to food drives to watching each other’s children after school, even when people are new to town.

But it’s rarer to picture that kind of person-to-person aid in a large city where people often don’t know their neighbors and the hard pace of living can easily leave someone behind.

Last week I was teaching digital storytelling in Denver at the historic Milheim House on Race off Colfax Avenue where the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop has made their new home. Colfax is a major east/west street that runs past the state capitol and legislative buildings just south of downtown. But other businesses on Colfax aren’t so auspicious. Depending on the block, the street gets a little rough around the edges. Liquor stores, fast-food restaurants, and tattoo parlors line parts of Colfax and street people who lack a home or a job or both are a familiar sight along the way.

I never drive to Denver; I take the bus. I don’t like city traffic and I’d rather read than watch out for other people’s cars so I ride RTD to get to Denver and around the city once I’m there.

Last Thursday morning, I caught the eastbound Colfax bus near the capitol just past the last stop for the 16th Street Mall shuttle. I didn’t have to wait long for the bus, but it was a little crowded with morning commuters so I had to sit a few rows back from the front. Because I’m not very familiar with this route yet, I sat on the aisle side so that I could watch the order of the street signs as we made our way east. I was a little nervous about overshooting my cross-street and paid extra attention to the road as we headed out.

At Humboldt, our bus stopped at a red light and I saw a man with a long white stick standing at the sidewalk to our right. He was tapping the edge of the curb with his stick to see where to step off. Because he was taking a long time to start across the street, I worried that he wouldn’t be able to cross all four lanes of Colfax before the light changed again. As I watched him tap and move closer to the street, I hoped he would realize that the light would soon change and he would wait onto the sidewalk until the next chance to cross safely again.

But he didn’t. Finding the edge of the curb with his stick, he stepped off into the street in front of our waiting bus and started slowly across the avenue. I watched him as he made his way, checking carefully for what came ahead with his stick in front of him. Halfway into the street, he must have realized that the light changed as the cars heading west drove toward him. He stopped for a few seconds and then turned 45 degrees straight east into the oncoming traffic. I gasped and waited for a car to hit him as he circled the middle of the street. Thankfully, our bus driver must have seen the man crossing and didn’t move the bus, which kept the cars behind us from moving too.

Somehow, no one hit him. The oncoming cars stopped in time; I didn’t even hear any honking. With traffic at a standstill in the middle of Colfax, the other passengers now glanced out the windows on the left side of the bus and murmured their concern. Finally, the man headed back toward the sidewalk where he’d started and disappeared from view. I think someone on the street ran out to help him back to the sidewalk because when the crossing man appeared next at the door of our bus, he had another man by his side. One of them asked our bus driver where to catch a different bus. I couldn’t hear which bus they requested, but I did hear our driver say that bus would stop a block behind us. The second man volunteered to take the sight-impaired man there. We all breathed a sigh of relief as our bus headed down Colfax once more without tragedy so early in the morning.

The next evening, heading back to my hotel on the westbound Colfax bus, I saw the man again. He was waiting at the stop this time, and asked for the bus to Franklin, which was east, not west, of where he stood. The bus driver told him that he’d have to cross Colfax to catch that bus. I gasped again and said to the young man sitting next to me, “I saw that guy almost get killed in the middle of Colfax yesterday.”

“That’s tough,” he said. As I hoped that we weren’t going to repeat the previous day’s near-tragedy, a man getting off the bus volunteered to help the guy cross the busy street. Good. He was safe again for now.

I don’t like to drive in Denver but I can’t imagine navigating a busy avenue like Colfax on foot with less than perfect vision. I worry about the man still but knowing that even in the big city, he can depend on the kindness of strangers to help him through his day makes me feel better. We all have to depend on others at some time in our lives.  Wherever we live, it’s good to remember that helping others is what people do.


Filed under memoir

The Nature of Cities

Tonight I’m dining alone, something I don’t do frequently, and because I hadn’t planned ahead, I just used what I had on hand: eggs straight from the chicken coop; wild oyster mushrooms picked this morning from a fallen log in our ditch; fresh tarragon growing next to the door; and sundried tomatoes from last season’s garden. A simple and filling meal, paired with a glass of homemade wine from our own vineyard.

I don’t mean to sound chic here. This isn’t gourmet. It’s just what we have laying around. That’s one of the benefits of living on a farm—for a good part of the year, you can walk outside and find dinner, and the rest of the time, you can eat what you’ve put by.

Last weekend John and I went to the big city for our 10th anniversary. We like a little city time, especially eating at great restaurants, browsing bookstores, and swimming in the rooftop pool at our hotel while the sun sets over the mountains. But this trip, I found myself feeling more annoyed with the incessant traffic and noise and less charmed by urban offerings of culture and cuisine than usual. I still loved our celebratory meal at our favorite “affordable” French restaurant, but I was most excited at being served the same kind of fava beans we grow at home.

As John and I walked around the city for two days, what I noticed most—what indeed I sought out—were pieces of the country. Patches of grass, pots of flowers, naturalistic architecture, even farm-fresh vegetables at our meals, anything that delivered a reprieve from cement sidewalks and steel buildings that block the sun. I started to understand why so many city people have dogs: they have to go outside to walk them, so at least they get a few minutes in the relatively fresh air and sunlight every day.

I also noticed for the first time how many tattoos portray flora and fauna motifs. One young woman in a sundress had a whole forest of birds and trees landscaped on her back, paradoxically the most ecological portrayal of the natural world I observed all weekend.

Until I heard the birds. Birds aren’t absent in the city. Pigeons and starlings live in the eaves of buildings; robins nest in neighborhood trees and city parks. But I wasn’t expecting a chorus of birds as we walked down the sidewalk in the midst of a busy commercial block near the state capital, a street with more concrete and asphalt than grass or even weeds.

As John and I passed a gift shop, I heard the birds chirping loudly and at once, as if a whole flock of birds was greeting the sun rising over a canopy of trees. Startled, I looked up above the shop’s doorway for a nest. I didn’t find a nest, but instead discovered a speaker piping out the birds’ songs to the sidewalk below. Whether the sound was meant to attract customers or scare off real birds, I’m not sure, but I smiled at the shopkeeper’s ingenuity.

And then a block later I had to smile again at the graffiti on the side of an empty storefront.

“DO YOU FEEL REAL?” it asked. What would “real” feel like, I wondered, in a place where the natural world is so difficult to find that artificial representations must stand in for the real thing? Maybe urban people do know what they’re missing. That’s why they try to create a little bit of country in the city. I was missing it too, but I could go home again to my gardens and trees and homegrown omelettes. For city dwellers, tattoos would have to do.

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Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture