Long Walk to the Big City

Aug 25, 2011 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Brian Wrote This, Fiction

Brian:  Here’s a monologue I did while working out larger ideas. It came out indebted to a Neil Gaiman comic, but I peeled off much of that Sandman influence  for the larger, someday-novel concepts.  I just love thinking about cities.

I can’t sit here for long.

I probably shouldn’t have stopped here at all, but my feet are absolutely killing me, and I think I would’ve traded my left eye for this cup of coffee. Anyway, it’s nice talking to you. You’re a nice kid, and where I’m going, I’m not sure I have a lot of conversation to look forward to.

I have been walking for twenty-one hours, through damn near every square foot of San Francisco. I picked this city on purpose—it’s small, only forty-nine square miles, so covering every block would be possible. New York? Chicago? Forget about it. Nice weather, too. Still, I didn’t give enough consideration to the hills. Russian Hill, Nob Hill, Telegraph Hill. It’s hard on the ankles, and the shin splints … even with all the stretching I did, I swear I wasn’t sure I’d make it this far.

Yeah, the whole city. Well, very, very nearly the whole city. See this map? I’ve traced off every street I’ve covered, and I’m damn sure I haven’t missed any, except this last block. This is actually my third try. First time, I missed three small alleys and by the time I figured it out, I literally could not cover the five miles to get to them. So that was a wasted day. Plus the preparation. Second time, it was the map. I covered every fucking street on the map, sorry, I have a mouth like a gutter, and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of gutters. But the map—it was outdated, and it was missing at least one alley.

What was supposed to happen … it’s a little complicated to explain. I probably shouldn’t tell you about this. Someone told me, and look how I ended up. This is about five years ago. See, there’s worlds other than ours. Even physics says that, just not what kind of worlds those are. And there’s this place, a realm of the mind, you could call it. A city. It’s the city that lives in everyone’s imagination. It’s the idea of a city, but whether we gave birth to the idea or the idea gave birth to us, I don’t know.

I’m living in Seattle, and I’m at an outdoor cafe, like this one, having iced mocha pretentiousness and completely flirting with the waitress, when this guy sits down next to me ’cause all the other tables are full, and I’ve got an empty seat opposite me. I don’t want to make a stink in front of the waitress, who is blonde and 24 and absolutely flirting back. And the guy starts telling me he’s on this crazy walk through the city, and I ask why, and he leans over to me and he says, in this raspy voice, just like this: “It has been said, and may be true, that if you walk the streets of a city, any city, in a single restless outing—that’s every street, every boulevard, avenue, pedestrian bridge, public garden path and alley—you unlock dream city, the idea city.”

And I’m thinking, whoa. Total crazy old guy, which is what you’re thinking, sitting here listening to me. But I humor him, more convincingly than you’re humoring me, I gotta say. The waitress is watching, amused, and I’m completely scoring points by not making a scene and being all supportive of the mentally ill or whatever. Her name tag said Julie, but she’d already told me her name was really April and she just used some ex-waitress’ old tag ’cause she didn’t like every creepy customer knowing her name, and so I’m like, I’m already invested with her, and I’m making progress, so I’m all, sure, old crazy man, tell me about your invisible magic city.

He says, and I’m paraphrasing from my memory and from stuff I’ve heard since, he says this pure city of ideas is the magical twin of your mundane metropolis. You’ve glimpsed it before, when the sun and morning mist curled around a church spire and made a familiar neighborhood seem alien, out of a different time and place. When a row of quaint fifty-year-old shops are reflected as something different in the warping, polarized glass of a new office building. When you find yourself lost, especially in a neighborhood you should know well. The little bodega is not on the street you thought it was. You’re on a block you don’t recognize, and when you find yourself back in familiar territory, you’re not sure where your strange street was. The perfect city is always there, and sometimes it finds you.

Because of what happened at the end, I got interested in all this, and then I started noticing the walkers. You know how in any city you see these guys, they look kinda shabby, but not like they’re really homeless? And they got layers of clothes and they look exhausted and unshaven and they’ve got backpacks, but they’re clearly not tourists? I’m describing me, basically. You see these guys, and I usually believe they’re, like, druggies. But if you pay attention—and I bet you will, now—you can see they’re got purpose, and they’re walking like they’ve got somewhere to go. And they do.

I’ve talked to them, and each one has a different idea. Most will tell you … well, they won’t tell you much, but they believe that the phantom metropolis is a single urban sprawl, the archetype of all cities, touching all its real-world cities at once. It’s the sum of all the dreams anyone every had about a city, from the first mud-brick walls around a bunch of thatched-roof huts to sci-fi visions of monorails and jetpacks.

So, the cafe. April is off being Julie for someone else, and the guy stands up. He points down the alley that opens across the street and not half a block up. “That’s it,” he tells me, “That nameless little alley there is the last bit of public street I need to walk, and I will have covered the entire city, and the true metropolis will open before me and I’ll walk its shadowy streets.” He absolutely talked like that.

Then I’m like, good luck, maybe I’ll see you there someday, and he gives me this look. And I watch him walk up the street. He stops at the mouth of the alley and looks around, looks at all of Seattle around him, and at me. And he straightens up like he’s taking a deep breath, and he just marches right into that narrow little alley.

Not even a minute later, April comes by and says, “Your new best friend left his hat,” and on the ground by the chair is this brown Borsalino, the hat Indiana Jones and certain flavors of aging sci-fi geek like to wear. It’s an expensive hat, and I am still impressing April, so I tell her, “No, you’re my new best friend,” but then I run off after the guy, with the hat. I get up there, and I’m like only ninety seconds behind this guy and he’s gone. He is nowhere in sight.

And the thing is, the Twilight Zone finish you’re not gonna believe, it’s a blind alley. A dead-end cul de sac cut into some block-long, hundred-year-old brick industrial building. There’s no windows, no fire escape to climb, and the only door is like six feet off the ground, as though there used to be maybe a wooden platform and stairs, like years ago. I walk down it, there’s nowhere to hide, no way up to the door and that crazy bastard is fuckin’ gone.

I see you looking. Yeah, this is the hat. Call me an aging geek.

So I go back to April and tell her the dude got away. That’s all I say. You don’t start talking crazy to a girl that hot. Not that it ever went anywhere, her and I. Anyway, I start looking into it, online, and I start talking to these guys walking the streets, like I said, and six months later, I’m poring over maps to pick my best route through Seattle. Never made that work, but now, hey—San Francisco.

Anyway.  Yeah, I just gotta make it to the top of this block, and I’ve covered every bit of this city. At least, I think I have. I’m not sure what happens next, but, you know, how can you know this place is out there, this whole other world is right there on the edge of ours, and not go there?

Hey, I see that look on your face, so in all fairness, I have to tell you what the crazy guy in Seattle told me, the last thing he said before he walked off. He says, “They tell you that if you walk every block, you’ll find your way to the endless city.” And here he leans in all close like this, and fixes me with this wild stare. “They don’t tell you how you’ll find your way back out.”

Anyway, that’s my story. I gotta go now. It’s time. It’s been really nice talking to you. Tell you what … you hold onto the hat for me. I’m just gonna stroll around the block.

2 Comments + Add Comment

  • That was intriguing and exciting and fun! I love it.

  • Thanks, Kerry — glad you liked it. Now I’ll have to go and post somethin’ else …