The Idiocy of Urban Life
1 Between about 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. the life of the city is civil. Occasionally the lone
footsteps of someone walking to or from work echo along the sidewalk. All work that has to be done at those hours is useful －in bakeries, for example. Even the newspaper presses stop turning forests into lies. Now and then a car comes out of the silence and cruises easily through the blinking traffic lights. The natural inhabitants of the city come out from damp basements and cellars. With their pink ears and paws, sleek, well-groomed, their whiskers combed, rats are true city dwellers. Urban life, during the hours when they reign, is urbane.
2 These rats are social creatures, as you can tell if you look out on the city street
during an insomniac night. But after 6 a.m., the two-legged, daytime creatures of the city begin to stir; and it is they, not the rats, who bring the rat race. You might think that human beings congregate in large cities because they are gregarious. The opposite is true. Urban life today is aggressively individualistic and atomized. Cities are not social places.
3 The lunacy of modern city life lies first in the fact that most city dwellers try to
live outside the city boundaries. So the two-legged creatures have created suburbs, exurbs, and finally rururbs (rubs to some). Disdaining rural life, they try to create simulations of it. No effort is spared to let city dwellers imagine they are living anywhere but in a city: patches of grass in the more modest suburbs, broader spreads in the richer ones further out; prim new trees planted along the streets; at the foot of the larger backyards, a pretense to bosky woodlands.
4 The professional people buy second homes in the country as soon as they can
afford them, and as early as possible on Friday head out of the city they have created.
The New York intellectuals and artists quaintly say they are “going to the country”
for the weekend or the summer, but in fact they have created a little Manhattan-by-the-Sea around the Hamptons, spreading over the Long Island6 potato fields whose earlier solitude was presumably the reason why they first went there. City dwellers take the city with them to the country, for they will not live without its pamperings. The main streets of America’s small towns, which used to have hardware and dry goods stores, are now strips of boutiques. Old-fashioned barbers become unisex hairdressing salons. The brown rats stay in the cities because
of the filth the humans leave during the day. The rats clean it up at night. Soon the countryside will be just as nourishing to them, as the city dwellers take their filth with them.
5 Work still gives meaning to rural life, the family, and churches. But in the city
today work and home, family and church, are separated. What the office workers do for a living is not part of their home life. At the same time they maintain the pointless frenzy of their work hours in their hours off. They rush from the office to jog, to the gym or the YMCA pool, to work at their play with the same joylessness.
6 Even though the offices of today’s businesses in the city are themselves moving
out to the suburbs, this does not necessarily bring the workers back closer to their workplace. It merely means that to the rush-hour traffic into the city there is now added a rush-hour traffic out to the suburbs in the morning, and back around and across the city in the evening. As the farmer walks down to his farm in the morning, the city dweller is dressing for the first idiocy of his day, which he not only accepts but even seeks －the journey to work.
7 In the modern office building in the city there are windows that don’t open. This
is perhaps the most symbolic lunacy of all. Outdoors is something you can look at through glass but not to touch or hear. These windows are a scandal because they endanger the lives of office workers in case of fire. But no less grievous, even on the fairest spring or fall day the workers cannot put their heads outside. Thus it is not surprising that the urban worker has no knowledge of the seasons. He is aware simply that in some months there is air conditioning, and in others through the same vents come fetid central heating. Even outside at home in their suburbs the city dw ellers may know that sometimes it’s hot, and sometimes it’s cold, but no true sense of the rhythms of the seasons is to be had from a lawn in the backyard and a few spindly trees struggling to survive.
8 The city dweller reels from unreality to unreality through each day, always
trying to recover the rural life that has been surrendered for the city lights. No city dweller, even in the suburbs, knows the wonder of a pitch-dark country lane at night.
Nor does he naturally get any exercise from his work.
9 Every European points out that Americans are the most round-shouldered
people in the world. Few of them carry themselves with an upright stance, although
a correct stance is the first precondition of letting your lungs breathe naturally and
deeply. Electric typewriters cut down the amount of physical exertion needed to hit the keys; the buttons of a word processor need even less effort, as you can tell from
the posture of those who use them. They rush out to jog or otherwise Fonda-ize their leisure to try to repair the damage done during the day.
10 Everything in urban life is an effort either to simulate rural life or to compensate
for its loss by artificial means. It is from this day-to-day existence of unreality, pretence, and idiocy that the city people, slumping along their streets even when scurrying, never looking up at their buildings, far less the sky, have the insolence to disdain and mock the useful and rewarding life of the country people who support them. Now go out and carry home a Douglas fir, call it a Christmas tree, and enjoy 12 days of contact with nature. Of course city dwellers don’t know it once had roots.