Brand building through storytelling

My city, myself

On his way home from school in a neighbourhood that teems with dog walkers and stroller-pushing parents, a friend’s teenage son was set upon by a band of young thugs who snatched his cell phone and his iPod. To show their disgust for his empty wallet, they punched him in the head. This happened just outside a subway station, at the stop around the corner from the hair salon that beautifies me once a month.

Security cameras recorded it all, along with other attacks committed that day by the same bunch of low-lifes who prey upon the vulnerable. They warmed up for the attack on my friend’s son by throwing an 80-year-old woman to the ground. While the henchman stood on her back, his minions ransacked her purse.

I have lived in Toronto my entire adult life. I have walked all over the city, in part to avoid driving, but mainly for the pleasure of knowing it as home towns should be known—at street level. I’ve found the sliver of green space tucked between the towers of commerce. I take the scenic route—a footbridge over a ravine—from leafy crescents lined with Edwardian mansions to the buzzing heart of downtown. On my wanderings, I’ve never once feared for my safety.

Yet the city I know is not the whole city; it’s a pastiche of familiar images, carefully selected through the years and burnished with every sighting. I see what I want and expect to see. I have never seen the high schools where, according to areport just last week, guns are being stashed in lockers while kids say nothing for fear of reprisals. Teachers and principals, the supposed guardians of order, have been running scared, too. Instead of protecting the students, they’ve protected their schools’ reputation, per orders from on high.

Appalled as I am, I can’t join the chorus of outrage that still reverberates in the press. I feel too complicit. Every time I step outside my front door, I make hundreds of unwitting, split-second choices that leave their mark on an urban moment. I choose between a smile and a don’t-bother-me stare, between bolting up the subway stairs as if toward the finish line in a race or stepping aside to make room for an older person laden with packages. Sometimes I make choices I regret.

Last weekend in a flurry of haste and confusion over a seemingly urgent errand, I flagged a cab and was intercepted at the curb by a man who’d just rounded the corner and assumed, reasonably enough, that it was stopping for him. “I saw it first!” I announced like the belligerent Manhattanites I’ve never wanted to become. As the cab swept me away, I longed to apologize—not simply to the man I’d pre-empted, but to my community for adding one more casual discourtesy to the urban moment.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As a traveller, I’ve often been awestruck by the kindness of strangers. The New Yorker who asked, when she saw me rubbing my eyes in a checkout line, “Would you like a mirror to adjust your contact lens?” The power walker in Frankfurt who shared her umbrella with me in a sudden rainstorm. The young bar-hoppers in Madrid who rushed to help when I fainted outside a restaurant. Looking up at their young encircling faces, I wondered fleetingly if they had designs on my wallet. That was before they called a cab, fetched a chair and stayed with me until all was well.

Are people in other cities more naturally considerate? I don’t think so. I think that when I travel, I’m more open to the graces of life. I want to absorb this new place I’ve come to, not shield myself from it as I so often do here at home. Just last weekend on the subway, I tried to rebuff the conversational overtures of the elderly man beside me. On he pressed with his judgments about the quality of today’s universities, the rights and wrongs of advertising, the courses he was taking to upgrade his professional credentials. Had this happened in New York or London, I’d have viewed him as an interesting local eccentric. I’d have asked him a question or two. Not so in my home town. After all, I don’t ride the subway to socialize.

But perhaps I’m missing something. To listen to someone is to say, if only with a look, “You are worthy of my attention.” What about the people with no friends or family nearby, and no colleagues to shoot the breeze with at the office? What about the old man on the subway? Was anyone waiting for him at home? As I got up to leave the train, he asked me, “What do you think about the future?”

“I don’t make predictions,” I said. “They’re always wrong.”

Not when it comes to the effects of social isolation. We already know that old people living alone run twice the normal risk of serious heart disease (I’ll be old pretty soon myself). And less than a year ago, a study by a Purdue University communications expert drew a connection between lack of social ties and the growing violence and incivility of modern life. Speaking just after the Virginia Tech massacre, professor Glenn Sparks put it this way: “We easily recognize the living rooms and kitchens of sitcom characters but have never seen the inside of the home of the family living next door…. A society that persists in creating a culture of isolation and disconnection may find itself in a very scary place…. It is time to recognize that we are all in this together.”

Funny thing: I can see that old man more clearly now than I could while I was sitting next to me. I see his faded windbreaker and knitted vest, the kind worn only by people well past a certain age. He had a mole on his cheek and big, corded hands that flew every which way as he spoke. He seemed to think the panel of ads before us held clues to a mystery that the two of us could crack if we only made the effort.

Posted by Rona

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