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Sidewalks

avoiding and embracing invisibility

By BKPublished 5 months ago Updated 4 months ago 8 min read
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Today is my ninth day in Seattle. Tomorrow, the young Tech guy whose cat I’ve been looking after returns to his apartment and I make my way to the airport. I’m tired, fatigued by the burning drive to take advantage of my time here, but there’s still some walking to be done.

On my first day in this neighborhood I walked to a nearby convenience store. What should have taken 14 minutes took 47 in part due to my innately horrible sense of direction, and partly due to my lack of experience with using GPS to walk around in a city. By now I’ve got my lay of the land - I’ll be walking .9 miles to a record label storefront, the last in a long list of touristy things I want to see. The public transportation system here is confusing to me - there’s the bus, the light rail, and the monorail -and every one of them seems to have at least two different names. So more often than not I’ve found myself walking, as the simplest option. It’s saved me a little bit of money too, but 8-12 miles a day takes a toll on the body, and at age 40 I’m struggling a little at the end of this tenure. I’m pushing myself to take one last walk.

It’s cold and windy today, the windiest day since my arrival. I’m underdressed and regret it. My scarf, worn only once on a tour at Mt. Rainier National Park, has already been packed away in my suitcase for my return flight. I hadn’t thought I’d need it. The wind stings my bare cheeks as I wander past muted apartment buildings with names like The Flora and The Overture. My path takes me through an underpass. It is afternoon- overcast, but as daylight as it seems to get around here. Still, I feel wary as I approach the tunnel, and relief to not encounter other humans until I’m through it.

The streets of Seattle are never boring. Today I encounter several people who appear to be leaving (or going to) a Furry convention - tails attached, carrying the oversized animal head masks in their hands until they get to their destination. One man wears a blue plaid kilt with a matching large fluffy blue tale. Another rides his bicycle in a full wolf mask. There are volunteers flagging pedestrians down to request donations for Trans Rights, a man muttering obscenities to himself, a stream of uniformed cops on bikes on their way to the Free Palestine protest I’ll later pass on my walk back. But most people who pass by are unremarkable and unmemorable- tourists and businessmen, residents and unhoused persons, nondescript bodies all blending seamlessly into the cloudy cityscape. I am among them - the invisible. I’ve never been alone to this extent - not this far from home, not for this long. It was jarring initially, to be in a city of three million people and realize not one of them knows your name. My only interactions were with cashiers, and the occasional smile and nod at someone in the elevator of my building. After awhile you start to question your existence. It is the opposite of celebrity. On New Years Eve the previous weekend I’d stood in a swarm of 25,000 spectators, just another black parka in a sea of black parkas watching the fireworks at the Space Needle. As everyone around me embraced at midnight, exchanging jubilant shouts of “Happy New Year!” I felt an unexpected jealousy. I stayed silent, with no one to exclaim my well wishes to. Everyone I loved was back east and sound asleep, having rung in the new year three hours before. It was enough to make me wonder why I’d come out here at all. But I’ve gotten accustomed, in the week since, to the feeling of being invisible here. I’ve started to welcome it. An invisible person isn’t prey for a sexual assault or a mugging. Perhaps walking the city streets here is perfectly safe, but I’ve seen enough to know caution is wise.

Now I’m standing on a street corner not far from my destination, waiting for the walk sign to light so I can enter the crosswalk. A half block away I hear a loud wail, something distinctly human but primal, feral. I look down the street to try to determine the source. A woman about my age walks oddly, hunched over with arms swinging wide, wailing loudly in bursts. I watch as she bends down to roll up her pant legs. I’m still wishing I had my scarf, so I’m taken aback that anyone would want to roll up their pants in this biting wind. She doesn’t seem to need any immediate help, striking the notion that she’s wailing as a plea. My mind jumps to the headline from years back of the person in Florida who, under the influence of bath salts, attacked and ate another person’s face, and I decide to abandon my course and take an alternate route to my destination. A block out of my way, but safely avoiding any potential encounters with an erratic human. Her cries echo down the street, and heads turn, but she’s ignored. I get the feeling this behavior is not abnormal for her, or maybe just not an uncommon sight in downtown Seattle.

The record storefront is cool. I comb through the records, but walk out with just a t-shirt. All of my records back east are in boxes on the floor of a room without furniture that I’m planning to turn into an office. I don’t have so much as a bookshelf to put my records on in that house yet, so adding to my collection seems silly (as does trans-continental record transportation in a suitcase.) Back east, I’ve signed a lease with two roommates on a house near my hometown, but I haven’t slept in it yet. I’ve only partially moved, and I dread the monumental task ahead of completing the move when I return. (I booked this housesitting opportunity before I signed the lease, putting this move in motion. I thought spending some time alone and exploring a new city would be good for me. I can’t say it hasn’t been, but it is surely walking the line.)

The move is the result of an internal pressure to live closer to my aging parents, and the timing of the collapse of a very very long relationship. (“17 years? That’s longer than most marriages” is the phrase I hear most often when explaining that I’m not technically getting divorced but it’s a divorce all the same. “It feels like pulling my own bones out of my body” is the phrase I hear the most in my own head.) So going “home” tomorrow is a strange concept, because while I have my belongings spread out among two houses (two hours apart), one is not a home anymore, and one is not a home yet. The closest thing to home right now is this apartment in Seattle, where no one knows me and I can walk around naked and fill the sink up with dirty dishes without annoying anyone. And that’s quickly coming to an end.

For the last 20 years I’ve lived in a mid-size city, less than half the size of Seattle, but with enough culture and activity to keep my thrills satisfied. It was small enough to be aware that if you went to a grocery store, you stood a chance of seeing someone you knew. (I once ran into one of my best friends in the lingerie aisle of Target, more than once crossed paths with an ex at a bar.) But large enough that you could go to a free outdoor festival and not be that surprised when you don’t recognize a soul. In moving back to my hometown, I’m feeling a sense of loss in that. My parents, social animals, can’t go anywhere without seeing someone they know. They relish in the importance of and the benefits of community. I, conversely, fear the sight of eyes lighting up with recognition in the coffee shop or bookstore, asking how I’ve been. It is harder to feel invisible in a small town.

I feel ashamed of being ashamed that I’m moving back - knowing that my hometown was good enough for my parents their entire lives and that it’s a perfectly fine place to live, and feeling bad that some part of me feels like I’ve evolved beyond it. Dreading losing the semi-anonymity of my small city, even while simultaneously looking forward to shedding the current total anonymity of Seattle. It’s true that a familiar face is something I very much look forward to seeing. My uncle will pick me up from the airport and I will be so glad to hug another human and delight in hearing his voice. And then I will pick back up the process of moving and formally change my address and surround myself with familiar faces and road names. (It is worth noting too that my uncle lived in California for most of his life, and chose to return to our hometown in the past decade to be closer to family. Perhaps he knows something I’m fighting knowing.) I’m fortunate, certainly, to have familiarity to return to. It just feels heavier than it should lately.

As I leave the record company storefront I hear shouting. The wailing woman is now closer, screaming profanities at someone or another. I don’t look in the direction of the shouting, but quickly flee away from the scene. Her behavior evokes sympathy, but I do not have the capacity to help (neither her state nor the recipient of her expletives.) I hope someone else does. Isn’t that the American way, hoping someone else will help?

Trudging up the long hill back to my last evening in my temporary home I find myself thinking that maybe living in a city of this size for long, being one of so many multitudes of people, without a proper support network… maybe it wears on you. I don’t think it’s our nature to stay invisible. Perhaps this woman had figured out that she didn’t want to stay a faceless figure in the crowds of a Saturday Seattle sidewalk, so she made sure we saw her. And if that’s the case, maybe my fear of encountering her was justified. It is unlikely she would have caused me any physical harm, but a greater possibility exists that I’d recognize in her some commonality - that we’re just two people struggling to handle our own invisibility. And who would want to face that?

humanity
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About the Creator

BK

self-indulgent attempts to write personal essays on the subject of being human + whatever else pours out

all photos are my own.

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