Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Saturday afternoon, in the middle of a downtown shopping errand, I turned at the greeting of a friend and her daughter. A few minutes later, as our unexpected encounter ended, my day felt transformed.

Blanche is my long-time colleague at work. She also lives just a few blocks down the street.  An immigrant from France whose family made their way in the course of two generations from North Africa to Provence to Paris to Montreal, she's gloriously, charmingly, elegantly Gallic. Her adopted daughter Julie was born in Viet Nam. She's an eight-year-old vortex of compact energy, Khmer by her looks, as French by nurture as her mother, trilingual in French, English, and the Dutch of her adoptive father Gerrit, and now learning some Vietnamese into the bargain from the woman who looks after her late afternoons. Sometimes I look out my second-floor window to see them heading home on a bicycle fitted out with a tandem extension for Julie.

Our conversation was hardly remarkable--a brief exchange of the day's events, my suggestion of a DVD together that evening (not possible for them), her countersuggestion to join them for their Sunday morning ritual of breakfast at a locavore hangout at the end of the street (possible for all of us). My intense pleasure in the meeting lay in the surprise of it: it came as pure gift and nothing any of us had bargained on, sparking our shared desire to make spur-of-moment plans. I walked away with a renewed sense that I belong in the world, and in this city. Not because of what I choose for myself in isolation, but because of who I'm invited to become in the presence of others.
It happens not only in chance encounters with friends. A week ago, I cycled up the steep hill north of my house to one of the most vibrant farmers' markets in the city, held in a set of repurposed barns that originally housed streetcars during repairs. The two guys in their late fifties who run the stall with the best-priced late winter vegetables were as usual putting as much time into shmoozing as waiting efficiently on customers in line.  The Adrian Brody  look-alike in the beret who plays French-style accordion at the end of the main aisle didn't show. Sometimes I run into people I know; sometimes not.
This is the gift of life in a city, or at least of life in cities worthy of the name: for all the alienation of modern capitalism, human beings, given the chance, find each other and are capable of taking pleasure in the simple facts of shared existence. But letting it happen requires that we prize randomness as a value, instead of organizing our lives to get just what we want and only what we want. We need to be surprised in order to be delighted, and need to be delighted in order to dedicate ourselves to strengthening the web of connections in which we're held. Vibrant cities are set up in ways that throw us together rather than keeping us in our own isolated grooves. Jane Jacobs taught us this fifty years ago, infuriating the city-planning moguls who cared only for efficiency, and for bigger and better expressways driven like stakes through the heart of neighbourhoods.
It's a cliche of urban regeneration over the last forty years or so that it was gay men who moved into decayed neighbourhoods, restored the houses, opened the local shops. There's a danger in romanticizing and idealizing that process. Others with more cash followed, turning less sweat into more equity as real estate values took off. The process of gentrification that often began with those gay urban pioneeers in the 1970's has had its dark side, rendering areas unaffordable to low-income populations that had called them home.
But the transformative potential of what they did lay in this: that they often espoused a model of urban life that valued public affinity and interconnectedness over private values of ownership and blood relations. Gay men don't and never have had a monopoly on the communal values of urban life. Arguably, gay life in the age of the internet has retreated from these values: Grindr has become as effective at keeping us from being surprised as a suburban shopping mall; the ubiquitous focus on marriage rights has nudged us out of the streets and back onto the couch in front of the TV. But in living memory, our circumstances have often put us in the position of living lives enriched most deeply by connections that haven't come automatically through the ties of biological family or a single-minded drive to couple up. That's a heritage of queer urban experience that's worth embracing consciously as a path through life, affirming that the cities which nurture us are indeed the metropolis--the mother of us all.