Hitting the Bricks (And Hoping You Don’t Get Mugged)

The only way to understand a city is to hit the bricks. If you have a car, it’s worth driving into some residential areas outside the city center, but if you really want to get a feel for a city, you need to beat feet. In some cities, you might have to take the subway (New York), the El (Chicago), or the Trolley (San Francisco) just to really experience the area. In Seattle it’s worth jumping on the ferry across the sound and taking their public transportation to West Seattle. The goal, of course, isn’t just to feel the city but to walk among the people. Buildings are buildings. Sure Seattle has the Rainier Tower and New York has, well, New York buildings, but when you walk through these two cities it’s not the buildings that create the real difference on the streets. Let’s be honest: people are people (so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully–sing it with me!) but it’s pretty different walking the streets of Millwaulkee versus the streets of Chicago versus the streets of Baltimore.

But walk we must and that’s what I do (much to the consternation of my wife when I tell her). Miles and miles, circling (or squaring, really) progressivley out from the hotel. Doing so reveals inner city gems. Get off the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and you walk up to Marble Hill and Mt. Vernon. Little corner bars (excellent places to watch a game) and one of the best little liquor stores in America tell us that “The Wire” might have been a great show on cable but Baltimore is more than drug deals gone bad.

But occasionally walking reveals some ugly, scary things about ourselves. Frankly, that tension between who we think we are and who we might become is one reason I love to travel–it forces me out of my comfort zone. If I’m hungry, I have to take a chance. (Don’t, by the way, ever tell a waitress in Atlanta to “suprise me” when she asks what kind of beer you want–note to all waitresses: blueberry is not a beer flavor to a guy with a Texas accent).

You don’t know this (because I don’t have a photo up) but I’m just a middle class white guy from West Texas. Born in the South, I’m pretty comfortable around all kinds of people, but we can never forget that in America, too often, diversity and tolerance means that we eat at a Mexican food place and laugh at a Tyler Perry movie.

And that’s what made my walk last night in Hamilton, Canada so interesting. And disturbing. I’ve walked a lot of cities, including Houston, TX, the most ethnically diverse city west of the Mississippi (although you would never know it if you are there on the weekends. I guess all the diverse people are indoors. Boring downton and I’m not just saying that because I’m from that area) and I’ve rarely been scared. Heck, I’ve walked a few non-American cities and not been scared.

But there I was in Hamilton, Canada last night. After my crack in yesterday’s blog about Canada and _Strange Brew_ I want to reiterate that I have nothing against Canada. I loved Calgary (even though some homeless woman there yelled at me repeatedly asking why I took her shoes–or at least she yelled at someone or some apparition in my general direction).

I hit the bricks last night. I walked, looking for some Canadian food. Evidently, Canadian food is either Chinese, Italian, Mediterranian, Korean, or Japanese (which makes sense–what exactly would Canadian food look like). This is something I should celebrate–diversity, difference, multiple languages crowding the streets–a veritble United Nations outside the hotel.

But I was nervous. Inexplicably. Young adults everywhere. Teen-agers. Young mothers with strollers. I know logically I was in no danger (I hope) but even the teenagers walking the streets worried me. I ate some delicious Indian food at Mahal’s, voted the best Curry in Hamilton one year. I had the Lahori Fish. Yum. I couldn’t understand a word the waitress said but she was friendly. A group of teen age boys came in, rowdy, orderd about  4 cheap items on the menu and talked trash the whole time (I assume–they weren’t speaking English but they laughed a lot).

When I left and tried to walk off my supper (if you go to Mahal’s, split the Lahori fish–they are generous with their portions), I got nervous all over again but I didn’t realize why Hamilton scared me until right before the hotel. I was walking behind two guys, both smoking, and both cussing up a storm. F-this, and GD that, and then when they spoke what I can only assume where equivalent words in Arabic, it hit me. Of all the diversity, with all the groups and clusters of people, they were all divided by ethnicity and language. English speakers here; Indians there; Arabic speakers on the other side. And never the twain shall meet. It seemed so tribal (and I don’t mean tribal in a necessarily negative connotation referencing issues of civility. I mean tribal, in this case, literally.)

My walk last night seemed fraught with a tension lurking right under the surface. This is not, I don’t think, a reflection on Hamilton but a reflection on me and largly irrational. I am a product, for better or worse, of an American culture that values difference but is also strongly insistent on a unified culture (united we stand, divided we fall). We still rally around collective holidays and collectively Americanized events. Doing so suppresses individual cultural differences in favor of the larger collective ideology. We really are a melting pot, blending those things we find most valuable into an American flavor (witness: TexMex food). And it works for us.

As I prepare for the day (ironically drinking Starbucks Arica Katuma coffee in Canada at a Sheraton hotel), I can’t wait for tonight’s walk. I just hope that woman with the stroller isn’t standing on the same corner. I think her baby sneered at me last night.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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