CITY living has been a new experience for me. For a long time, I'd been accustomed to having cows and geese as neighbors. Until I came to the city, ``noise'' meant frenzied moos and quacks during the animals' occasional breakouts from the pens and the grazing meadow next door to my parents' country home. Now my world is peopled by tired tenants and wailing sirens. Doors slam at night and jolt me awake. I talk with the tenants and listen to the sirens from a small efficiency apartment in a run-down building in Washington, D.C.
But, after almost eight months of being a transplanted, wide-eyed bumpkin, I still can't tell which I like better: raucous animals and green grass or the hodge-podge of people and the chipped paint that make up my living experience on Massachusetts Avenue.
My new living quarters are in an old, hot building. The floor is peeling and the repainted furnaces go crick-crick-crick in the wintertime. The place is similar in appearance to other buildings on this street: It's made of bricks, decrepit, and low-rent. No one here has much money, and there is little luxury.
IN this neighborhood there are rules, and they have to be obeyed. I remember moving in last October while tenants were being evicted. They didn't pay their rent. I got a free, dull-yellow chair with embroidered white flowers, and a TV rack. Ms. Bishop, the resident manager, shook her gray head in disgust when I asked her about the chair (I was unsure whether to take it or not). ``Maybe they'll be back,'' I said. ``They're long gone,'' she spat. ``They had it coming.'' Welcome to the neighborhood, I thought. But this was my new home. A far cry from a country manor.
City life is overpowering to the small-town boy who grew up with after-church breakfasts at the local restaurant. In the village back home, almost everybody knows everybody. The young are rowdy and shy, and the adults are content to talk about local affairs. Before it closed down a few years ago, the menu from the old restaurant never changed: Eggs, bacon, and scrapple.
Now, in my crammed apartment building, I smell Indian curry wafting up through my floorboards. It is a vivid reminder of my migration to the metropolis. There is the smell of meat searing on hot plates that comes from the hallway, probably fajitas or tacos. These are cosmopolitan smells that entice even as their pungence sometimes overwhelms my nose. They reflect the make-up of my fellow tenants: Indian, Latino, African. So many different kinds of people under the same roof. I slowly adjust to the human cornucopia.
Being only a newcomer, I can vividly remember what life is like elsewhere. Living in Washington makes me remember my high school days in ``little America.'' Our town was not urban, not multicultural; it was football games and jacked-up cars right out of ``American Graffiti'' in the parking lot. My neighbors then were farm kids, would-be engineers, cheerleaders, and surly body-builders. They appear different in my memory; different from my new ilk of service workers and stunned immigrants. ``How could anyone live in a city?'' was not an uncommon question where I came from. (As if some city-dwellers had a choice.)
I half-expected Washingtonians (just regular folks, not senators or powerbrokers) to be inscrutable and foreign. I thought I was different, too, that I would stand out as another kind of immigrant.
But, here in my old building, with graffiti on the bricks and salsa music blasting out of the windows on hot days, there are meeting places and friendships; there is gossip and a sense of home and possession.
One prime gathering place is the laundry room. It is my building's town hall, its corner store. In a way, it reminds me of having breakfast on a Sunday morning at the diner. So many people go about their business, chatting, folding their clothes, and scolding their kids. It's a good meeting place, full of protective adults and wide-eyed children. I feel I've met them before somewhere else.
The elderly groan when they lift their laundry. The teenagers gripe about the end of the basketball season. I stand back and observe, and silently laugh at myself. ``Inscrutable urbanites,'' indeed.
It was in the laundry room where I met the little boy who told me not to forget my clothes in the dryer. He perked up and alerted me in Spanish as I moved to leave the room, and waved a shy bye-bye when I left without the clothes that weren't mine. He sucked his thumb and stood against the locked door. His mother beckoned him. In her gaze I could see caution, and concern for the child. He was a little brown boy staring up at me, the big white man.
I wondered how long he'd lived in the building and where he was from. Was it El Salvador? Ecuador? I still don't know. But I'll ask him some other time, after some work on my Spanish. I figured he'd come from a small corner of the world, too. Now we lived together, sort of. It seemed like a joyous accident.
That was when I realized I like living in my building, even if I still wasn't used to this place called the District of Columbia.
Later I met another person who looked transplanted and slightly shaken. Doing wash a few weeks ago, I was talking to an Ethiopian woman whose name I didn't catch. We talked about the bad smell of sweat in the laundry room. ``Oh yes, yes,'' she said. ``Very `orrible.''
But she grinned while expressing her revulsion. It seemed she had found a new home. It wasn't the greatest, but maybe it was better than before. We had both found a new place to live. The essence of my new home came together then and there.
I still haven't made up my mind about which I like better - city sprawl or small-town country. But I like this juxtaposition, this mishmash of tongues and colors, of cooking smells and laundryroom conversations. I'm not planning on leaving anytime soon. With some luck, maybe I'll even learn to cook some new foods.
I can always trade recipes with my fellow tenants.