A Touch of Ivy

Southern novelist Walker Percy wrote, I think in The Moviegoer, that every city has a spirit and that if you stop to listen, you can sense it. I have found this to be so true. I’ve been to many cities in various parts of the world and I make a point of walking around alone for a couple of hours or more and listening and watching, just to see if I can catch a glimpse of that spirit. The best time, I find, to discover this mysterious entity is not during the rush of the day, when all you get is the roar of business, the vacant expressions perfected by the shuffling passersby, a kind of clothes without clothes. No, the best time is the early evening, when the sun has vanished and the town is winding down. The whole place takes an almost audible breath then, like someone who has been standing up on a street corner all day who suddenly gets a chance to collapse into a chair. That breath is the spirit of the town.

Strolling back from a drugstore on the edge of Harvard campus, I marvel at the crescent moon hanging in the still glowing sky, one of the brighter planets, probably Jupiter, keeping a lonely vigil near it. Cambridge is breathing its daily sigh, having shrugged off the load of toil and traffic for the day. Undergraduate college students, (so young, I say to myself) walk the streets, talking on their mobile phones, standing in clumps, conversing peripatetically, all with the air of people who own this town. It’s not really their home, it just belongs to them somehow, like the shoes they wear. And I am a mere passing shadow in their world.

At this time of day, when a soft breeze accents the atmosphere, the sounds of the city are almost choreographed–the airy rise and fall of the intermittent passing vehicle is more like the surf lapping on a calm day, not like the urgent tempest of noise earlier on. Residents walk their dogs with a quiet tinny clatter. A street lamp buzzes. Someone’s AC window unit rattles. The low conversational tones of pedestrians are like distant recitations. A jazz band rehearses in a back room at the Congregational church, intense little bits of it spilling out into the street as I walk by.

Lights are coming on in the windows of the houses hugging the street. Empty classroom buildings with no curtains offer glimpses of doorways and stairwells and rooms where one can’t help wondering what people hear there during the day. Indistinct words cling to the shadowy face of the building like drops on a windowpane after the rain.

The city breathes its sigh and I’m delighted to discover the spirit of a town that teaches to be a familiar friend. I greet it warmly, wish it well and move on.

Unitarian Church, Cambridge, Mass.

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