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Joys of the City: Watching the World Go By, by Sarah Skwire

Garrison Keillor has a fine essay in this month’s edition of Harper’s called “Hurrah for the Plaza. It’s so well done that you don’t even have to read it in his slow, folksy, Lake Wobegon drawl in order to enjoy it.

One of the things I like so much about Keillor’s piece is that it reminds me of one of my favorite things— the 18th century newspaper, The Spectator, that almost surely at least partially inspired Adam Smith’s conception of the Impartial Spectator. In the first appearance of The Spectator on March 1, 1711, Joseph Addison had the fictional narrator of the paper introduce himself this way: 

I have passed my latter Years in this City, where I am frequently seen in most publick Places,…There is no place of general Resort wherein I do not often make my appearance; sometimes I am seen thrusting my Head into a Round of Politicians at Will’s and listning with great Attention to the Narratives that are made in those little Circular Audiences. Sometimes I smoak a Pipe at Child’s; and, while I seem attentive to nothing but the Post-Man, over-hear the Conversation of every Table in the Room. I appear on Sunday nights at St. James’s Coffee House, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner-Room, as one who comes there to hear and improve. My Face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa-Tree, and in the Theaters both of Drury Lane and the Hay-Market. I have been taken for a Merchant upon the Exchange for above these ten Years, and sometimes pass for a Jew in the Assembly of Stock-jobbers at Jonathan’s. In short, where-ever I see a Cluster of People, I always mix with them, tho’ I never open my Lips but in my own Club.

Addison gives us the image of the rational, silent, objective observer of human kind, busily moving through the bee-hive of 18th century London, watching and hearing everything that happens, but never commenting on it until he can meditate upon the experience in the privacy of his own club.

Keillor gives us the same character in a contemporary city.

This is what you do in a ­plaza: look at the people and imagine their stories. The man leaning over the table glancing at a newspaper looks like someone who’s been charged with tax fraud hoping not to find his picture on the front page. The men in dark glasses at the table beyond hardly speak to each other, and I imagine they are brothers and their wives have gone off to an art gallery and a hair salon and the men are waiting to get back to Utah tomorrow and resume their lives in direct-­mail advertising. They look at me in my jeans and white shirt and herringbone jacket and imagine that I’m a retired, defrocked priest who lives alone in a tiny walk-­up. 

Keillor echoes Addison’s peripatetic spectator, though he does so not while wandering through the city, but by sitting in a plaza and letting the city wander to him. He also echoes Smith’s Impartial Spectator by trying to imagine the worlds inhabited by the people who surround him. But importantly, Keillor doesn’t just use the plaza and its opportunities for spectation as an exercise in imaginative fiction. He uses it as a way to practice real sympathy as well, reminding us that:

My mother told me to be polite to strangers as a matter of self-­respect and also because they may be enduring some personal tragedy you will never be aware of, so be kind. Civility is based on empathy, and it is at the heart of democracy. 

Smith certainly would have agreed with him about that.

But where I really like Keillor’s piece is at the very end, when he sings the praises of the community of the city and the exchanges–personal and commercial–that take place there. Contrasting the crowded and shared life of the plaza with the solitary life Thoreau chose to experiment with in the woods, he writes:

I believe a person could write a better Walden sitting in this ­plaza. I sat in the ­plaza because I wished to deliberate humanity, to witness the essence of society, and learn what it had to teach, and not retreat to the woods and there discover only my own reflection in the pond. The mass of men lead lives of quiet resolution. What appears to be indifference is confirmed resolution. From the introspective country you go into the adventurous city, and inspire yourself with the bravery of cops and teachers and the ingenious games and amusements of mankind. Greet the day with joy, share your space with strangers, be astounded by the secret lives around you. Beware of all enterprises that involve sleeping on the ground. Breathe the air, drink plenty of water, taste the pastries, and resign yourself to the presence of pigeons.

We do not, these days, see enough writing about the joys and opportunities of life in cities. Addison and Steele’s Spectator, Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, Jane Jscobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Citiesthey have all become unfashionable. Keillor reminds us of the pleasures of a place where we can see the world and learn to love it by having it come to us.

 

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