I must have been about five or six years old and just ambling down the street where I lived when I had my first epiphany. I am, I thought, where I was born. I know, I know, not exactly mind blowing. But at that moment I felt a bone-deep, visceral connection to Montreal. And, I knew forever forward that this little patch of earth would always belong to me.
When I was around 13 or 14 I bumped into a neighbor on the bus when I was going home from school. It was crowded, and a couple of times we fell into each other as the bus fishtailed slightly on the icy streets. She had just had a baby and wanted to know if I was interested in babysitting because she and her husband wanted to go see her mother. I said that I wasn’t sure that I knew enough about babies to spend a couple of days alone with one. The bus swerved again, and as she careened toward me, I’ll never forget her baffled laugh as she told me that her mother lived just on the other side of town.
“You mean you were born here?” I asked.
“Of course. Where else?”
“So you grew up and didn’t leave?”
“To go where?”
“Away from here!”
It may sound naive but, up until that point, I always thought it was mandatory to leave your place of birth. My parents had immigrated from England (and theirs from Ireland ), and until that moment I don’t think I had met an adult who hadn’t come to Montreal from somewhere else.
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that my mother’s first words to me were, “As soon as possible, you should think about leaving home . . . ” True, she wasn’t the keenest of parents. But she was onto something and whenever my sisters and I were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we felt her gimlet eye on us; whatever it was, it had better take place in a fabulous city.
I did leave home as soon as I could. I escaped to New York, a city I had only been to once before when, in the late sixties, the family went to visit my aunt and uncle and my cousin who lived, at the time, in Ramapo, New Jersey. As a treat, we kids were taken into NYC. What I remember best from that day were the women leaning out of tenement windows, their elbows propped up on pillows; a car on fire merrily burning away and a dog who was so busy looking at a rat rummaging through the garbage that he walked into a lamp post. And the garbage! All those bashed-in garbage cans arrayed along the street. What a town, I thought.
When I arrived in 1978, the women seemed to have retreated indoors, and there were no burning cars. But I wasn’t disappointed because I knew I had just done the most adult thing I was ever likely to do.
As luck would have it, I managed to sublet an apartment in Westbeth, the famous artist cooperative. I saw the city almost as if it were a patient on an operating table, split open from stem to stern. Everything was hanging out and on view. In the early days, because my windows didn’t open enough for me to be a sill-dweller, I would head out to see the city’s guts, which, this being Greenwich Village in the late seventies, was an eyeful. But the moment I felt I was a real New Yorker came when one of my neighbors sleepwalked right out of her apartment and when she woke up and found herself naked and locked out she chose to bang on my door at four in the morning to be rescued.
A chance of an incident like that happening is why people from all over the place flood to New York, except my husband; he was born here. When I suggested that he might lack something having never left home, he said East 37th Street in Flatlands might as well be on the moon compared to Prospect Heights, where we lived and still maintain an apartment. I have to take him at face value.
When our friends started to have children, I did worry about the kids' emotional development. Where were they going to go when it came time to leave home? They weren't born on East 37th Street, so no moon claiming; they were born in Manhattan right in the heart of where half the world was trying to get to.
The great thing about New York is it doesn’t give a shit whether you’re there or not. It offers you nothing. You have to grab it, make it, create it, dream it. Well, everyone knows the trope about the place. So naturally, like coming up against an indifferent lover, it becomes imperative to make New York want you, and in doing so, you add to the great mosaic. Most people manage it, forge the love affair and, if for some reason it has to end, it’s a little death.
Recently I died, or half died. And I have to say; I’m shocked. After all, I moved to another city, Abu Dhabi. It's not the first time I’ve lived somewhere else. Over time I have managed to set up temporary, six - or eight-months long and even some year-long residences in a number of other great cities: London, Paris, Los Angeles, Sydney. So I knew that, while each has its own distinct personality, the nature of cities is pretty much the same.
Abu Dhabi is a different kettle of fish. It’s the only city I’ve lived where 80 percent of the population is expected to leave, is mandated to leave! Not all at once, of course (though that may change if the craziness of the Middle East ever breaks the protective bubble of the U.A.E). But, as it stands, unless you are Emirati born and bred, you’re living on borrowed time.
One of the first things you are asked when you meet a new person is “How long does your contract run?” Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a game show. “Ladies and Gents! You have two years to fill your bag with as much money as you can. Run! Run!” Granted the bags to be filled vary vastly in size. The street sweeper from a village in Pakistan, his bag is pretty small; even so, most of it is sent home where one day he’ll have to return and hopefully his remittances after years of labor will be enough to provide him a house and savings that will last him until the end of his days.
I don’t blame the Emiratis for demanding that once we’ve taken all we need we have to get the hell out. To look around and see more than a few million houseguests must be a bit overwhelming. You certainly wouldn’t want the unruly guy who hogs all the food and throws the towels down on the bathroom floor to take up permanent residence.
But what sort of city does this create? On the surface, it seems like any other metropolis. People come, people go. But -- and this might just be me -- there’s no sense that something of ourselves is being added. And I can’t help but think of some little kid, the son or daughter of a temporary guest worker, born here, but not of here, having that same moment I had more than 40 years ago on that bus in Montreal. What are his or her thoughts? Can they even begin to feel that bone-deep sense of place? Of course, later I wanted nothing more than to leave Montreal. But how would I have felt if I had no choice but to leave? It's a subtle thing but it does change one’s relationship with the city. This is a boomtown, a port town, a tourist town -- but for all of us guest workers, it will never be our town.