I like to think about what people are doing right now:
- My fourth grade classmate with the indomitable cowlick putting the last touches on a carpentry project
- The television celebrity panning the shelves of an open refrigerator
- A seventh grade girlfriend talking to her new son-in-law
- The star athlete losing his wife’s conversation in his worries about a contest that afternoon
- A niece looking for her glasses so she can delay putting in her contacts to read
- A former student hanging a print in a narrow apartment powder room
Though picturing these people may seem voyeuristic and vaguely creepy, a sort of peace settles in me when I imagine everyone okay. I don’t picture a father slapping a child, someone throwing a stone at a policeman, a policeman firing bullets into a crowd, a bomb being planted. No murder or mayhem. My fantasies land inside a narrow range of daily living, working, and loving. Our lives on a regular day.
In the city, I pass similar scenes every morning. A fit and sharply dressed woman in heels emerges from the gym at a trot, rushing to meet the next brown line L. Two senior regulars at McDonald’s are sitting at the same table with the same coffees before them, contributing to a conversation interrupted by yesterday. At the dry cleaners, the employee who helps at the register arrives with snow on her boots and stomps her feet near the doorway. The owner, sitting at the sowing machine doing alterations, looks up and smiles. They laugh about something I can’t hear. Down the street, a customer at an all-night diner throws both her arms in the air in the middle of a story and, though her companion has his back to me, he leans forward in rapt attention.
Walt Whitman understood the reassurance in these glimpses of humanity. Little moments populate his poems, and, though they aren’t always as tranquil as mine, they are companionable, reaffirming people flow in one river that, at least in our daily lives, moves in similar ways to the same sea. His poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” describes commuters with eerie familiarity. A bridge replaced the ferry and we have conveyances Whitman never dreamed, but a reader recognizes the people he meets. “It avails not,” Whitman says:
… neither time or place—distance avails not:
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried…
I wonder what difference it might make if we experienced each other so directly and shared life without technology. Instead of splitting into billions of separate people, what if we could all picture any person at any moment? We don’t have gods’ omniscience, but we have imagination. Why can’t we see how closely other lives parallel our own, how, at any instant, we are all acting in the same scenes?