Cities are traumatic. And I think that’s okay, and that the trauma is part of the reason why creative people gravitate towards cities, but I think that it’s also important to realize that they are traumatic and to acknowledge it and proceed accordingly – get away, read some Wordsworth.
This occurred to me today when I thought that I heard somebody screaming on the subway track of the TTC. All it was, really, was a train coming in the opposite direction – somehow the air trapped between the two trains produced the sound of a human wail – but for a few long seconds, I thought that I was hearing somebody shriek. That’s not the horrifying part.
The people around me were completely unphased, in large part because they were almost all wearing headphones and also probably because they had experienced this before and already knew what they were hearing, but that’s not the horrifying part either. The horrifying part is that I felt no horror. No chills, no concern. I thought that I was hearing a person screaming, and even though I wasn’t, it was still a noise of trauma – and I felt nothing.
The sound of a siren elicits a reaction because it represents disaster, a tear in the fabric of society, but a pure human cry has no symbolic meaning – it is what it is and thus holds no currency in the over-mediation of city life. Trauma is around us, buffets us all the time and we lose the capacity to acknowledge it terribly quickly, stop considering it even to be traumatic.
Think of the colours of the city, dank and dark and shadowy. Think of the constant, life-threatening onslaught of traffic, or the scaffolding overhead (a loose bolt liable to drop down onto you like the wrath of God at any moment). Think of the very notion of living on the twenty-second story of a building like some colossal, unnatural bird, a building that probably has no 13th floor because that would be too scary for us.
And then simply being forced into this level of proximity to so many human beings gives us the need and the ability to shut ourselves down to what’s happening to those other humans, to their traumas. It’s terrifying and depressing. I’d like to think that had that gust of air been a real human scream, I would have reacted differently, that it would have pinged some deep primal nerve and that I would have jumped up to help or at least looked up and thought to do something other than fucking write about it. But don’t I see screams every day?
Don’t I walk past people strung out and alone in sleeping bags on the street with not quite nonchalance but with at least a kind of practised callousness? Don’t I see people who, unable to deal, eat until they can’t function or starve themselves to death? Don’t I walk by the girl outside the bar at 2 a.m. with the guy, all tentacles and alcohol breath, a leech that survived a nuclear accident, asking incessantly for her number and don’t I decide that tonight it’s not my problem, not my battle to fight? Don’t I choose to ignore the screams of humanity repeatedly, every day?
Somewhere, deep in my psyche, isn’t this affecting me like a fucking blitzkrieg?