Dearborn and Monroe
February 18, 8-9 am
We develop specific tactics of observation living in a city as diverse and densely populated as Chicago. These tactics are like filters, allowing us take in the information we need to complete our daily tasks without feeling completely overwhelmed. While participating in our HUG I get to observe the gamut of ways people observe/acknowledge/recognize what is right in front them. I have broken the modes of seeing down into these categories:
1. Recognition + acknowledgement – folks who notice and acknowledge us
2. Recognition + Active engagement – folks who engage with us either by starting a conversation, taking a flyer, taking a photo or giving a hug
3. Perception + Active avoidance – Folks that recognize we are doing something strange and thus try very hard not to look at us
4. Utter obliviousness – folks who walk by and don’t even see us
**5. Anticipation + Actualization – more on this later…
I have some thoughts about #3 in particular. I call #3 “city apathy.” I think everyone who lives or has lived in a big city experiences city apathy at one point or another. I have to wonder if #3 (city apathy) leads to #4 (complete unseeing) after a while.
A couple of weeks ago, I was taking the California/Kedzie bus north from McKinley Park when two woman at the back of the bus got in a loud argument. The argument was between a woman on her phone and a woman with a baby on her lap. It started when the baby flailed and the mother caught her. The woman on the phone made some comment to the person she was taking to like, “A woman almost dropped her baby!” The mother quickly confronted the woman on the phone by saying something like, “Are you calling me a bad mother?” The woman on the phone retorted, “I’m not talking to you, I’m on the phone!” And with that, both women began insulting one another and egging each other on. Within half a minute, the two women were screaming insults and threats at one another. The woman with the baby was sitting in the seat directly behind me and as soon as they raised their voices, my city apathy blinders came up. Don’t look. Don’t acknowledge them. Pretend like it’s not happening and hopefully it will stop. I also sensed in myself a note of amusement that two people could so quickly and irrationally upset one another. Just as I was stepping out the back door of the bus at my stop, the woman on the phone lurched forward and attacked the woman with the baby. I stopped unsure of what I could do to help. I held open the back door to make sure the bus didn’t drive away. People at the back of the bus were screaming, “Don’t touch the baby. Don’t touch the baby! I exited through the back doors and circled around to the front doors of the bus to ask the bus driver if he was going to do something about it. “I pushed the button,” he said. “There’s nothing more I can do about it. I pushed the button. What do you want me to do, get in on the fight?” I wanted to do something more, but felt helpless. So I continued on my way. Later when I told Sara this story she asked me if the baby was alright. “I don’t know,” I responded, surprised at my own inconsideration.
I share this story because somehow I think it relates to our hugs, to the ways that we see other people and they see us. And its instances like this that create filters of perception, that allow us to become guarded and even oblivious to events happening around us. There is something important about these kinds of spaces –buses, sidewalks downtown, etc.– where people of all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and social status come together. On one hand there’s the potential for us to become hardened and oblivious to one another’s struggles, but on the other there is the potential for great understanding and compassion.
That brings me to the fifth mode of observation I mentioned earlier Anticipation and Actualization. It’s rare, but sometimes when we are hugging, we encounter someone who seems to be looking for something extraordinary. This happened during Hug #30. Sara and I had comfortably settled in to our hug and suddenly a woman appeared and hugged us from the side. “Thank you,” she said. She was middle-aged with long gray hair and a peaceful face. She held us securely for several moments, smiled and then walked away. But something about her, something about our encounter made me feel that she had been looking for us. When she found us she was not surprised or confused, just grateful. It’s a courageous way to move through the world.
And I have been wondering this week what looking at art has to do with seeing (or not seeing) events happening around us. How are these ways of seeing important to one another? Experiencing art involves looking closely and analyzing spiritual and emotional qualities of a work. How might this process extend to everyday experience? I think John Berger might have something to say about this. More to come…