22nd May 2011: Layers

A little while ago I wrote a post on Tor.com about Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song (1979). And I was thinking wow, 1979, but it doesn’t feel like a dated future, I wonder why that is? And I think it’s because it’s more layered than you usually see. I was thinking what else was like that, and I remembered Delany’s Nova (1968) and I thought, well, what do Disch and Delany have in common? They were both gay men in New York City. And because they were gay and lived in New York city in the sixties and seventies when it wasn’t socially acceptable to be gay, being gay in and of itself brought them into contact with men of all classes and ages, some of them hustlers, and it brought them into contact with them because they had something in common with them, not because they were out there researching. (“And how long have you been a peasant?”) And so Disch and Delany wrote futures that weren’t narrow and middle class and full of people all at the same stage of life, they wrote futures that had people of different ages and classes, they included these kinds of things in their work because they had them in their minds because they had them in their lives. They had a breadth of experience of people and the world that most of the SF writers of the time did not have, and they were better writers and wrote better more layered and more lasting futures because of it.

When Z was a toddler, I started to take him to mother-and-toddler groups. And I started to know people purely in my role as Z’s mum. And these people were all the same age, within a reasonable margin, but the vast majority of them were working class — nobody in their family had been to college and they or their partners were working blue collar jobs. And I suddenly realised that I hadn’t known any working class people for a while in there, that I’d almost forgotten about them. Oh, they gave me my change in shops and fixed my shower, but I hadn’t been interacting with them on a level where we had something in common. And that made me notice how people narrow down, how easy it is to only know people like you, people your sort of age and your sort of class — the people you work with, the people who share your interests. There are people who know no children, and parents who only know parents, and people who know no old people except their relatives. And I find that claustrophobic. And when I lived in Lancaster at the time I’m talking about, when Z was a toddler, I mostly hung out with a lot of bohemians and gamers and fans, and that’s what I’m saying was comparatively limited.

Hospital waiting rooms mix you up with everyone. C.S. Lewis talks about how parishes do, or are supposed to.

And so does public transit, because there you are out with everyone, hanging out at bus stops.

I have a number of bus stop friends. I mean people I regularly see at the bus stop and chat with. They are of all ages and classes. Lots of them are immigrants. (I am also an immigrant.) Lots of them are older people. At the moment I’m worried about the health of two of my bus stop friends who both fought in WWII on different sides — one of them fought in Mussolini’s army and the other with MacArthur.

Most of the people I meet at the bus stop I never see again. They don’t live in my neighbourhood, or else I’m at a bus stop in their neighbourhood. I’ve had some great conversations with these people. There was the woman whose ancestors came here via the Underground Railroad, and the woman who used to live above a mews, and the girl whose grandfather kept a pig on his balcony. I don’t elicit these stories. We generally start off with a conversation about when the bus is coming — or in the case of my friend who fought for Mussolini, about the weather. And then they will ask me where I am from, and I will tell them, and I will ask them where they are from and they will tell me, and before you know it we’re having a conversation about the Borgia popes or their cataract operation. And when they do live in my neighbourhood and I start to see them regularly, we become friends, we find ourselves catching each other up on our lives — their daughter’s getting married, my son is moving…

I don’t know their names and they don’t know mine. They’re a different kind of people from people I meet because we’re all interested in books, or Rysmiel’s work colleagues. They’re a broader range. They make my experience more layered, broader, more interesting.

And you may shudder and you may say no, this is why you love being insulated inside your car and never have to meet these people. Or you may ask if I don’t ever meet horrible people or boring people, and of course I do.

But for me transit isn’t just my only option for going anywhere, it’s also an interesting way I get to meet a broad range of people, in their natural environment, and on an equal basis.

Posted in Human culture, Writing