No Woman's Land
I’m looking at the comments left here yesterday, when I said I never saw the same people twice on my walk to work. “I'm amazed you don't begin to recognise anyone.” “This will change: didn't you have ‘nodding acquaintances’ with people on buses and the tube who rode the same route at the same time every day?”. Well, no. Really. I examine my perceptions, all too aware of my negative prejudices and the ease with which I edit out what doesn’t conform to them. But no, really.
This is London. Four years of exactly this daily bus-journey to work and back. Every day the same bus-stop at precisely the same time. I can count on the fingers of one hand the people seen more than once. And god knows I’d notice – not much else to do at a bus-stop. There’s an elderly woman who gets my bus perhaps once a month. A mother and her chubby son who started secondary school back in September. They chat nervously. He doesn’t like the new school, clearly. She goes with him to make sure he gets there. I’ve seen them 5 or 6 times over the months. Another mother and her teenage daughter: half a dozen times over as many years, the girl transmuting from spindly schoolgirl to fashion-model elegance, while the mother disappears in spreading clumps of flesh and anorak.
That’s all. For this is the megalopolis. Even it’s small corners have no edges. We drift like particles and never coalesce. Only the most structured intersections bring people together for long enough to call it a meeting.
And now, walking to work, I get to know the timing of the traffic lights, the reflections in certain windows, the handful of leaves left on a tree, the crooked manhole cover that threatens to trip me. But not the people. Many of them walk the pavements between 8 and 9 am, though fewer in the evening. People live as well as work in this central district I walk through, just South of the Thames. Estates of social housing. Student residences. South-Asian, Cypriot and Italian shop- and cafe-keepers. I notice them, watch them. Many races. Many costumes. The way they bump together in pairs and groups. But I never see the same ones twice. It’s all too big. They are too many. We do not intersect. It’s not hostility. Not even deliberate indifference. We’re just not very present – or present perhaps to a conceptual entity called London, but not to a physical spot within it.
And there's freedom, of course, in this floating existence. That's what brings and keeps people here - the ones who have a choice. It's been pretty joyless at times, but I've grown here, while I might have withered somewhere more constricting.