Alone in the City

Once a year I go on a solo retreat to write, walk, and collect myself. For the past four years I’ve gone to a rustic cedar cabin nestled in the foothills of western North Carolina. The closest town is a twenty-minute drive away, and the cabin is beautifully crafted and sparsely decorated. What initially drew me to the place was the lack of media in it. I always bring my big box of writing, incense, candles, books, and good food to cook. I only leave this cabin in Saluda to hike or walk around the tiny town for a brief spell.

This year, I yearned to go in a different direction. I was feeling beach not mountains, east not west, big city not quiet spot. Annie had just returned from a trip to California where she’d worked and seen friends and family in San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. I wanted a little dose of the juke and sizzle.

And so I found a nice apartment in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. It was the polar opposite of my mountain pad: smack in the middle of the city; big television with cable and a DVD player; WiFi access; walking distance to a load of clubs and restaurants. Sure I’d write!

Being alone in a strange city offers a particular brand of alienation. Despite the fact that I was surrounded by people for two nights and two days, I spent almost the entire weekend without really talking with anyone. I tried, initiating conversations with a homeless guy, several bartenders, the book-store cashier, the pizza server, a mother and her two toddlers. I was friendly but not desperate, I thought, although I did mention that I was from out of town in hope that it might prompt a follow-up question. Instead I received only cursory words in return — nothing rude, but nothing forthcoming either. At times I felt like the man alone at the restaurant with sad eyes. At times I was the man alone at the restaurant with sad eyes.

I needed an open face, some kind of porch light to beckon me in. Instead just those damn polite smiles. If only I were back in Saluda, where there was no possibility of connecting with anything other than myself and the trees. Instead I was in a city where I resided on the margins, a single man amid a sea of chattering compatriots. I could smell community but not penetrate it, and I yearned for the cabin’s silent balcony. The closest I got to companionship was watching some old favorites on television — at least I knew those people.

I woke up Saturday resolved to dig in. I walked down to the boardwalk beside the river and wrote notes about everything I sensed around me: the smell of sulfur in the coastal air; the rusty barges inching along the Cape Fear River; the rag-tag circle of kitchen helpers smoking cigarettes outside the restaurant; the drunk guy telling his friend “you are the only person in the world I respect.”  I was jotting all this down when I heard a message: a gray-haired man with a hiker’s physique walked by with his adult daughter and said, “Any way that one can discern the present.” That swatch of truth catapulted me out of my fugue and into staying on the saddle of the weekend even if the ride felt alienating and arduous.

And so I jumped in my car and drove straight to the beach, where I laid out my towel and sunbathed along with the hundreds of people whose skin met the warm sun after months under sweaters. I’ve seen men alone at beaches my whole life, and, despite the fact that I was overjoyed to be lying with my face toward the sky, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was that guy.

For lunch I grabbed some fish tacos at a crowded Mexican restaurant. Across the narrow street was a shirtless, weathered, pot-bellied man sitting on a bench beside his bicycle. He had a handsome, craggy face, like someone who’s smiled a lot in the sun. He looked jolly but a bit beaten down. His eyes were sharp, though, and they were taking in everything that passed: bikini-clad girls, cops on bikes, sports cars revving their engines. I wasn’t sure if he was observing or leering.

But then Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote came to mind: “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Who was I to know whether this man had found his own sweet spot right there on the bustling streets of Wrightsville Beach? How did I know he was lonely and defeated? The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says that he spent two years sitting on park benches in a state of intense joy, realizing that all life’s majesties were available to him right then, right there.

Just then, some young hippies came and sat next to the old beachcomber and started talking with him, and he got very animated as he pointed to his bike and gestured widely toward the beach in front of him and the town behind him, almost as if to signal the extent of his domain. Then they left, and he suddenly looked right at me. I felt the chill of being caught, almost like the scene in Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart gets spotted from across the way by the murderer. But then the man gave me the slightest nod of his head, like he knew we were brethren.