A City of Windows

24Jun12

The sky has been as grey as I have never ever seen it in Washington. It’s raining. And raining. All the rain that hasn’t fallen in the last two months. It’s getting dark again soon. But I can’t see further than a couple of blocks anyways. The wind blows around the corners of the building. A steady beat pounding from the loudspeakers. My lightened window one of thousands, of millions. The world outside isolated.

1. Cities are full of stories. I am a story. I am here now. Welcome to Washington D.C.. I am part of this city, this crowd, breaking through the rain, cycling its streets, going places, work, cinemas, restaurants, parks. At the same time, I am alone in this city, any city, any place. What would be this city without me? It wouldn’t cease to exist. It would only not exist for me.

Every person a story, a light behind a window. When they are lucky. I have never seen as many homeless people as in Washington. Some hiding behind constructions, some just lying on the next doorstep, wrapped in pieces of cloth, blankets, newspapers and cardboard, wherever a roof provides them shelter. Lighting up a cigarette, if they can afford it. Once, I was standing in front of a bar, waiting. A guy comes along and starts talking to me. I know that he will ask for money, his clothes are worn down, hair uncombed, he has this look. But I let him. Hastily, he gives his line, it’s a joke: “How’d you get a homeless person on the roof? You tell ‘em the drinks are on the house!” I have to grin. It is funny. He knows, it is funny. I give him a buck. He goes on and tells his line to the next passer by. That is his story. All day long.

In the rain, all cities are grey. Streets are lonely, suddenly, life washed away by the water, not recognizable.

2. Cities are crowded. Too many people to know each one of them. Windows over windows, skyscrapers, tower next to tower next to tower. But as the sun breaks through the clouds, people populate the boardwalks, the parks, to meet, forming groups, to celebrate. I went out to see a football match (I refuse to call it soccer). The place was crowded, hardly a space to stand (I was being moved around by the waiters every other second trying to serve beers and burgers). The game I came to watch, Real Madrid against Barcelona, El Clásico, a match between rival cities and their clubs’ fans, I have seen probably everywhere I lived, not always, but at least once. I was surprised to see the sports bar invaded by Barcelona fans, only to find out that Barcelona was its official team. You wouldn’t think there is a fan restaurant for a soccer club in Washington D.C., but there it is. Barcelona may well have a fan bar in every city in the world. And every second soccer fan may well have a jersey of Messi. Even more, counting the people in Messi shirts around me. I went for Real Madrid. Well, not really. I only supported the Germans playing for the team. (I actually can’t stand Ronaldo, Mr. Vain, a reason not to cheer for Madrid, yet, I don’t support the Messimania either, despite him arguably being the most amazing player of the world, but there are simply way too many 10-minute-Messi-goal-compilation-videos on YouTube, and I believe that football is a team sport). So I was happy to see both Germans playing well that night in the rain at Camp Nou.

An hour later, I was sitting with a friend watching a second league game from Argentina. The same place, emptied out now. The staff was folding the Barcelona banners. Across the room a table of Americans who were trying to get a glimpse of the Washington Capitals against Boston Bruins hockey game while having their burgers, in their sports shirts, flip flops and short pants. Ice-hockey in short pants and flip flops? My friend is German-Argentinean, but you are where your favorite team is from, even if it is some second league club. He arrived in Washington after me and already changed jobs twice, from the Inter-American Development Bank to the World Bank, his next two years secured.

Suddenly clouds are piling up. The wind gets stronger. Trees fight against the gusts of winds. The rain starts.

3. Cities are schizophrenic places. They receive you with welcoming arms, then let you alone. They are melting pots, but no where else people are more separated, Chinatowns, little Istanbuls, Central American markets. They invite you to find a space among its people, its bars, its parks. A space for watching big games and small games. And they refuse to reveal their secrets. People crowding together. People hiding. People getting lonely. People looking for their way. People getting lost. People becoming famous. People getting strange ideas. The other day I read about a German from the unimportant town Bielefeld who went to New York just to find out if he could see a match of his local club in some bar. He did.

4. Cities are nature. I sometimes dream of a day where plants simply start covering the concrete. Not only in rooftop gardens. But trees as high as skyscrapers. Angkor Wat in New York City. Angkor Wat, an ancient city, vast and said to have been populated by one million people (now, half a million tourists visit the temples in search for a civilization Wikipedia tells me), where trees strangle the ruins, branches reach through windows, roots raise from amid the rooms. Now, tour guides on mopeds drive tourists around, picking them up at the airport, giving you a ride directly to their hotel. The next day, they wait for you and accompany from building to building, two days, waiting patiently at each temple, sunny or cloudy. I don’t remember the name of my driver and guide. But I do remember his smile, him leaning against his vehicle. Calm, gentle, patient. Who will guide us through our cities?

The only moment when a city doesn’t sound is when it snows. Muted city. A white carpet grows, covering, for a moment only, its dirt, slowing down the movement of its inhabitants, freezing. Life holds its breath. And then exhales again.  

5. Cities are love. Do I love a city? Or do I love the city because of the woman that I met there? The places that we discovered. The streets that we walked. The moments I shared, the sun that made me close my eyes, keeping the beauty of this instance inside me, remembering her face, so perfect, her eyes, smiling, her lips, so tender. There is no rain in a city with love.

6. Cities are anonymous. Me, the anonymous. He, without a light, without a window. But I remember his story, a young man I met in Rabat. It could have been Tijuana. Or anywhere else. He was Sudanese, on his way through Africa. I met him during a Capoeira class, he was teaching this Brazilian martial art, working here and there, and living in the Rabat for almost two years. We never really talked about where he came from. I tried to ask, but didn’t insist when I felt him evading. He hoped to get a stable job, finally, in Rabat, but finding jobs is difficult when you aren’t legal. A couple of weeks later, we happened to meet in the North of Morocco, where I was travelling for vacation, and he didn’t say, but I think was making plans to cross for Europe, through the strait of Gibraltar.

Dry season. Will dreams have the chance to grow?

7. Cities feel like organs, living metabolisms, pumping the people through its streets, its places, buses, subways, like veins. I wonder, do you live in a city, or inside one? Uncovering a labyrinth of tucked away corners, mysteries, dark tales and loving tales. I love exploring them, walking around, inspecting the cracks on the façades, discovering the backyards. Imagining the catacombs under Paris. I am sure people are living there, too.

The rain, far away, filling the subterranean canals. Rivers under earth.

8. Cities are farewells. Since I have arrived in Washington D.C., I have been at so many farewells already. Only the suburbs are for those who stay, who have kids, who are commuting to work. There was a barbecue at a friends today. They moved from Colombia to Berlin, and now, they bought a house in Bethesda, about half an hour outside of Washington D.C.. The whole family, two daughters, her husband, who takes care of the household, and her. Moving is easier alone, but arriving is easier in a family. I believe they’ll stay here. They live in the suburbs. Happily ever after. They have a house. I don’t think the barbecue happened with the rain. I didn’t go.

Another day, it continues raining. Rain dropping on the concrete. The city is growing. More people are arriving and leaving, rain, or no rain. On transit. Wipers moving rhythmically, right and left, right and left. Stopping. Moving. Rain. Eventually, it’ll cease.

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