Today, I am outing myself. Again.
I am omega lonely. I am my own lonely archive. I am the material I have accumulated. And I say this in happy-humiliation.
Where has this realization come from? Well, the easy answer is doughnuts. The tougher answer is that I returned to Hamilton, Ontario yesterday (my old dwelling) and realized right away that walking around the town I felt real lonely. I’ve got a great family, spectacular friends, a swank apartment–that currently smells like mothballs which sucks–a few jobs, yet I am hilariously lonely. And Hamilton seems to just get it.
Wandering around the downtown core by Jackson Square Mall in Hamilton (a mall busy with motorized wheelchairs (that are sharply bedazzled with bobble-head toys and plush bears), teens skipping school and smoking by the liquor store, elderly folks walking about for exercise, toddlers wobbling throughout stores with their mums) one notices a tension between absence and clutter/ collectivity and loneliness. On the one hand, empty spaces, demolition rubble, abandoned warehouses and stores proliferate this urban centre reminding me of the empty promises of progress. The lies George Bush spouted when he, after 9/11, said: “get out there and shop,” as though a new handbag would erase the image of The Falling Man or the eviscerated Twin Towers.
As Imre Szeman says, Hamilton is a town of “lost splendor and frozen energies.” The skeletal remains of buildings that used to be successful restaurants and shops stand side by side, held up now only by the artists’s hope for government grants. “The brick buildings are so pretty,” everyone seems to say, and yet they crumble and tumble from years of neglect.
To be sure, Hamilton, like many industrial towns, seems a bit forgotten and overlooked–the middle child who isn’t thought cute enough or smart enough to be noticed. Box-like buildings penetrate the city like rusty nails in its side. Perhaps most visible are the phallic box-like structures that have become the model for low-income housing in Hamilton’s downtown. You can’t miss them; the streets are like a virtual labyrinth where each twist and turn leads to one of these solid, yet dreary containers. Made of grey, brown, dirty-white, stained concrete these buildings (with their uniformity and perfectly proportioned metal balconies) resemble a poor-child’s simulacrum of Lego-land, where all of the colored building pieces have been used to make shiny cars, houses, and cottages in Lego-suburbia, leaving the throw away scrap Lego-blocks for the urban spaces on Jackson, Main, Markham, and King Street. Hamilton is literally a tale of two cities.
The effect is eerie as one looks up into the skyline and sees a synthesis of windows staring into the city like the compound eye of a single fly.
And holy shit is there a lot of trash. The place is overwrought with junk that dresses the space in a virtual garbage-skirt made of Pepsi cans, McDonald’s packages, cigarette boxes, Red Bull cans, diapers, and piles of boxes. Litter is found everywhere (in the middle of the street, on roof-tops, under cars, stuffed inside newspaper carts). No one hides it here. No one piles waste up in segregated sections of the city; no one categorizes and orders it; garbage blows around the downtown like tumbleweeds.
Of course this is the case though. Corporate chains and businesses continue to move into Hamilton; however, they are careful to stay far away from the downtown centre, choosing, rather, to set-up shop in proven prosperous areas such as Dundas, Ancaster, or The Mountain. Yet, not shockingly, these same corporate chains like Starbucks also manage to push independently owned, local establishments into the downtown where they have few customers to sustain them.
This telling narrative speaks to the frustration many urban Hamiltonians suffer from as they battle to negotiate their desire for affordable housing projects, jobs and respectability alongside governmental initiatives that seems duplicitous. At once caught between forcing Hamilton’s downtown core into becoming a profitable metropolis for the middle-class “yuppie” (driving the urban classes elsewhere) and abandoning the downtown altogether, there seems little hope for the average urban person.
The reality for most people downtown is that the buildings are shackled and torn apart, businesses are closing by the day, and people are unemployed and turning to the very products that will ensure Hamilton’s demise – drugs, trash, depression. It would seem as though the city is stuck in a war with its own loneliness, uncertain whether to be pleasured by it, or succumb to its madness.
However, loneliness and the fear of wasted potential that surrounds it in the urban core carries within it its own charms and intrigues, demanding that we take a second look.
I think the loneliness in urban spaces like Hamilton is filled with combinations of anxiety and pride. The downtown refuses to be assimilated or dismissed, tossed left or right, and somehow, without money or intervention, it operates in its own lostness.
What I’ve learned about my own loneliness is that it has been greatly misunderstood by academics, health care professional, politicians, and popular culture. There is a presumptive almost fearful sense that surrounds loneliness as scientists and medical professionals tell us all that we must keep a watchful eye on loneliness, especially in cities where there is a panic about what loneliness does and where it leads.
This presumption that loneliness is an ‘it’ that can be expelled and fixed can be seen through the literature (medical, memoir, self-help, academic) available that is supposed to help lonely-people reassemble. Take a moment and look loneliness up online and you’ll be bombarded with images of sad, sorry, saps who cant seem to find friends. A taint of vice always clouds it.
A belief also persists that one’s loneliness has the power to infect others, interrupting the healthy mental or physical stability of the body as though it were as potent as SARS or West Nile. In this case, loneliness becomes a dangerous setback to one’s own and all others’ sociability. It’s a real downer at any party.
Granted, loneliness is alienating at times, but that alienation stems as much from shame and societal judgment as it does from loneliness itself. Perhaps this is because loneliness is too often conceptualized as a disabling attribute that is only distinguishable through its effects – sadness, and longing. It’s as if western society believes that if we can catch a scent of someone’s loneliness and follow a trail to its causation, we can treat and control it.
Since loneliness is understood to be unsocial, manic, and depressive–the fault of the lonely person– than it is also presumed that the lonely can only be re-embraced by the social sphere (returned to it) if they give up their loneliness and ‘become’ not-lonely. Or happy as it were. But what if the lonely chap doesn’t want to give up their loneliness?
It is this notion of giving up that I’m trying to think through here as I negotiate sexuality studies’ current shift towards looking at the importance of emotion to the daily lives of people. I wonder how loneliness (as a feeling, act, and queer identity) might enable a politics of lostness, recognizing that there is something wonderfully pleasurable about loneliness’ changeability and unpredictability.
Susan Sontag asserts that within a culture that values interpretation and knowing what’s what, “identity is everything.” However, what remains consistently intriguing about exploring urban spaces like downtown Hamilton is the fact that one loses all sense of self there. I become many “I'”s, eating my hot dog, stumbling around and seeing the impossibility of one collective, coherent identification. Lonely selves do exist in the downtown core, but there is a sense too that all is confused and chaotic, and that’s ok.
It just might be that in a place like Hamilton or Toronto or Halifax, wherever, loneliness, instead of taking something away from us, could actually give us the gift of an ill-at-easeness, opening up dialogues about “homeness,” strangeness and belonging while offering an alternative way of being-in-the-world with others. It is in this way that loneliness sounds very queer indeed.