Vonnegut's village, and mine

In praise of urban errands, and all those friends on the street.

In praise of urban errands, and all those friends on the street.

The late Kurt Vonnegut lived in Manhattan as if it were a village in which nobody was a stranger to him, and he arranged his days to increase his chances of running into all sorts of people. He wrote in Technology and Me (Harper's, September 1996) that he refused to draft his stories and novels on a computer. He typed his rough drafts using a typewriter, then blue-penciled the pages, because it meant he'd have to depend on a typist to produce final drafts.

He'd call his typist to check on her availability, and on the phone they'd digress into the pleasures of idle conversation. Then, needing to buy an envelope in which to mail her the draft, he'd visit the newsstand across the street where, he wrote, "I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them."

After sealing his draft in the envelope he'd amble over to the post office annex down the block. “One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it,” he fondly reminisced. “And I go home. And I've had a hell of a good time. I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different."

Vonnegut captures the feelings I have when errands take me out in Seattle's streets among a variety of familiar people, some of them homeless, doing this or that in the city we share. It's a happy two or three hours of dilly-dallying along that at this point in my life seem pretty good reasons for being alive. One winter day early this year, for example:

After my weekly coffee with Gerald I walk down University Way, half-slipping in the slush, and catch sight of Robert, living in Nickelsville, the tent city temporarily located in a U District church parking lot. He waves me over beside him, and we trudge down the snowy sidewalk debating whether wool is warmer than fleece.

I bid Robert goodbye and turn west toward Trader Joe's because today I need to buy milk. Beneath Trader Joe's generous eaves Paul has a dozen of his photographs for sale, arranged on a big piece of cardboard on the sidewalk. We discuss his newest color shot. After picking up milk and a couple of other items I buy a Real Change News from Jim. I ask him how giving up smoking is going, and we high-five his eighth month of no cigarettes.

On my way back home I see Angel selling Real Change near Jack in the Box. I buy a paper from her, too, and she asks do I want a song. Angel has a fabulous voice. When we met ten years ago, she lived in a high cavelike space under I-5. Back then she sang for money, and at our first encounter when I offered her food instead of cash, as is my habit with spare-changers, she touched my arm: "Do you think you could get me some skin lotion?" Yes, I could.

This afternoon Angel is clean-and-sober, a requirement for being a vendor of Seattle's finest activist weekly. I tell her how well she looks, and she grins, "Thank the Lord, I'm not intoxicated!"

And I go home. And I've had a hell of a good time. Walking my city's streets I pretend to be living in a village where I know everyone even if they've forgotten my name.


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