Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road, begins with an outline of her project: to share the lessons of her travel, encourage us to get out on the road ourselves, and to tell stories. Stories of travel compel us, she says, because “more reliably than anything else on earth, the road will force you to live in the present.”
I listen to her stubbled, strong voice reading the book’s introduction as I wind through Boston in my Toyota Yaris. I haven’t pulled up my GPS for this trip. I know the city well enough, at last, to find my way to even an irregular destination without its aid, though I can’t quite suppress the anxiety that there might be a more efficient path. I think of my parents, hard to reach this week from their lodgings in Athens, Greece, and my own brief trip to New York City, during which I answered not a single email, and all but forgot about the news. I was there in New York with a child’s wonder at tall buildings and whimsical subway tile, there with the imagination to picture Edith Wharton and Henry James complaining about urbanization from a classic yellow taxicab, or John Lennon strolling Central Park. It was delicious.
The medical suites are near my old apartment in Brookline. As I get closer, the neighborhood becomes familiar, and I consider stopping at the liquor store on Cypress–I know they sell Citizen’s Cider, Nathan’s favorite, but it’s already 10:45. I pause Gloria Steinem, walk in to the office and pull out Teju Cole’s Open City to read as I wait for my name to be called.
Cole’s narrator wanders New York after shifts at a hospital, glorying in the inconsequence, the improvisation of his movements through the city, so contrary to the calculated work of a psychiatrist. “Each neighborhood appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight”; the walks allow him to be “with thousands of others in their solitude.” I imagine him noticing everything, closing his eyes against the glut of stories that jostle him like strangers on the subway: little girls in matching coats “surfing” on the D train, blond teenagers at Chelsea Market debating their next destination in rapid German, a guide book held loosely in one’s slender hand, a man in a black dress coat drawling into his bluetooth in a Midtown cafe, the beanie-clad drifter who asked us if the food was good here; should he get lunch at this taquería?
On the Megabus back to Boston, my seatmate had asked about the Dorothy West novel I was reading. The small talk turned to our destination–it was his first visit to New England. “What do you do there?” he asked.
I started rambling about the Freedom Trail, the famous cannoli place in the North End, the museums, the aquarium, the oldest tavern in America. He stopped me. “What do you do, on an regular day?”
An intimate question from a stranger. I responded carefully: “I read, mostly, or watch TV, or visit friends for dinner. I suppose I don’t play tourist much at home–you imagine that the museums and sights will always be there.”
The conversation waned. I was grateful. I resolved again to take advantage of this season in Boston, to go to museums and listen to symphonies and watch for whales, to have a better answer to the question in the future. I resolved to live lightly, as a traveler does, to explore and imagine the surrounds of the city. But back at home, my resolution thins. Instead, I listen to Gloria Steinem on my commute, and read Teju Cole in the waiting room, and make weekend dinner plans with friends. We won’t meet up in the city. We’ll spend our quiet evening at home.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.