I have a friend who occasionally asks me when I’ll move to a real apartment, meaning a modern one that I can’t afford. Mine is in a 130-year-old former bakery I like to think is haunted by donut ghosts. The building was built on top of an aquifer, and the sump pump thrusts out massive amounts of water every several minutes. The outlets are in odd locations, but I love the apartment massively, because it’s old and weird, because it feels like the city of Saint Paul—crumbling and iron-dense and mold-flowered and layered holy upon unholy ghost—and because my life has been lived in it.
I recently finished Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City. The book, which makes the argument that art can defy and redeem loneliness in some way, was not what I’d thought it would be. I thought Laing’s book might be about how loneliness is a beautiful part of living in, and relating to, a city. About how we form ourselves like ghosts in a city of ghosts, watching everything, aware of the layers built upon layers, open to the invisible— all the lives that are not us—and always separate.
I thought it would be about how when it starts to snow, and the sky turns lavender at the horizon, and the Saint Paul’s Smith Avenue Bridge connecting two cliff-sides forms a line of light high above the freezing river, everything turns into a longing, a sadness that pulls the belly taut. About how loneliness is a beautiful way to long for and love something you can never have.
Instead, The Lonely City is about struggle, about loneliness as something to be fought rather than accepted. It describes the sadness of people placed in close proximity with few ways to actually connect. It considers touch and stigma and longing, and, in large part, centers on the work and personhood and tenderness of admittedly lonely artist David Wojnarowicz during the early years of the AIDS crisis.
Wojnarowicz endlessly photographed and filmed the Chelsea piers when they were used as places to have sex and to ameliorate the loneliness caused by hate and unjoined skin. His films, along with the photos of Peter Hujar, show the piers as decrepit, abandoned and falling apart after the shipping industry reinvented itself in the 1960s. Through Wojnarowicz’s gaze, their decrepitude becomes cherished. It’s easy to feel as if you are wandering the expansive sanctuary of a church, stained glass and carved woodwork exchanged for spray-painted murals and drywall peeling in elegant apple-rind strips.
Sometimes it’s enough to watch what someone else loves and love that they love it without it having any personal meaning. One of my favorite anecdotes about Wojnarowicz is about how he would carry a bag of grass seed to the piers and walk along while sowing the earth, loving every bit of it and wanting it to be more beautiful, to know that it’s loved. Or, alternatively—a motivation I think about a lot—attempting to love a place so hard that it loved him back.
I often use the James J. Hill Stairs of Pain (I believe they’re properly called the Walnut Street stairs) to walk into Saint Paul’s downtown. The stairs extend about 425 feet from Summit Avenue to the Mississippi River floodplain, where they are interrupted by Interstate I-35E and resume a half-mile westward by the hospital. The freeway destabilized the cliff, which now crumbles invisibly within itself.
The stairs crumble too, along with the vast limestone wall holding the eastern cliffs back as you enjoy the view of downtown cupped by its own southwestern hills. Descending the stairs feels like live burial, like being swallowed or encased, like pretending I’m being (slowly) eaten by a dinosaur when I descend into the DC metro.
Between the stairs and the small boulevard abutting the freeway is a hillside covered with twisted bracken, Timothy grass, and encampments of homeless people. In a city where extreme elevation separates neighborhoods and literal points of view, much is invisible. Walking from the stairs to the Kellogg to further descend into downtown feels like walking through a living room not my own, from the carefully tailored lilacs and hydrangeas of Summit to the discarded clothes, pizza boxes, and grill coils of a pathway that intersects another set of stairs to Mother Teresa of Calcutta boulevard.
Artist Ricardo Bloch makes what he refers to as “lifescape books,” photographic evidence of the spaces in which we live, books that attempt to answer the questions “What was it like?” What surrounded you, what did you look at and notice, with what did you fall in love when you stopped noticing?
He writes that they are made with “the future in mind,” which I think means that they are made to ameliorate the loss of what we never knew we loved until it was history. The loss of the loved surroundings we curse for their guests of ant and flood and mold, without realizing we are guests as well.
When I was a child—full of the simple and lovely ideas that churches feed to children because they’ve forgotten how dark and complex a child’s mind is—I lay in bed at night and imagined heaven in order to terrify myself into sobbing. It was a game: streets of gold, everyone singing and wandering about with nothing to do and nothing interesting to look at, eternity that spools on and on with no escape. No delightful past to explore. No ghosts. No ghost stories. Nothing could be more horrible.
God is a loneliness, cultivated. God is a lavender sky that just snowed and is about to snow. I walk past Petrus and Paulus, distracted and scowling, respectively, on the stone Cathedral of Saint Paul. I walk down 10th Street past ghost signs—all the fading paint of long-ago businesses on brick—past everything that’s been built over, past the church whose own walls deposit sandstone powder on my fingertips while its innards bathe the air in incense.
I walk. Down Wacouta, its buildings hugging the sidewalk that splits apart. Down Cedar, bridge rimed with rust from where the salt-snow hits the ironwork. All the metal in the city eaten away at least in part (“Minnesota disease,” my dad calls it). Men sleeping on mattresses in the cool of the Cedar Street Bridge, where someone has fixed a hole in the glass caused by a rock launched from the freeway below. The hole caused cracks to fling outward into the glass, a strange amoeba or alien spider. I miss the hole; my gaze doesn’t know where to go.
As a child in church, I learned that cities were evil, harbors for the worst type of wickedness. I could not wait to go and live in a city. Small towns were for Christians, because small towns bred community, closeness, ways of unhurriedness that encouraged spirituality. There is beauty and God in this, though the latter is difficult to sneak away from, in my experience.
Cities were for loneliness, for fraying connections, for stories and lives and pasts that you could glimpse and feel but to which you’d never belong. There is beauty and God in this, though the former, changing shape as it does to accommodate and fulfill your loneliness, is difficult to sneak away from, too.
During a 2003 archaeological survey of the cliff behind the James J. Hill house, which encompasses the Stairs of Pain, workers itemized the artifacts they found, meaning that in their evaluation, detritus from the lives of the homeless people and the railroad barons (and several incomplete oxen) merged into the narrative of the objects that form a city: Square nail, milk bottle fragments, cap marked “Colt 45 malt liquor big mouth,” razor with one blade, 17 teeth, drain tile, rib fragment, pipe bowl, threaded bong mouthpiece.
God is a list of objects recited until it turns holy. God is a city you love because you live in it.
Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.
The above image is by Gabriel Caparó, used by permission of a Creative Commons license.