Friday, July 21, 2006

THE FINE ART OF LOITERING


No Loitering
Originally uploaded by Cam B..

One of the best things about being a college student is that you have permission to loiter. On campus, you can sit for hours in coffee shops, wander the stacks of the library with no apparent purpose, perusing whatever volume catches your eye. Or you can find a green spot and simply sit on the earth. There, in the green patch you've claimed as your own, you can take out a sketchbook or a writing pad and reinvent the world or you can be still and allow it to pass through you as it is--in all its serenity and tumult. You can loiter with friends or you can do it in perfect solitude.

When I was a student, I was a world class loiterer. In fact, it was my undeclared, major. I loitered in all the ways and places listed above. But my favorite place to pass the time was in the horse barn. I spent so many hours marvelling over the grace and power of the animals that they came to know me.

When I entered, Flintlock, the haughty stallion I most admired always turned his back. I imagined him saying, "Oh, it's only her again."

And the pale horse who always came to greet me would have been forced to explain my strange, human behavior. "Leave her alone. She's working toward a degree in the fine art of loitering."

It's something animals understand well.

Sometime, toward the end of my time at the University, I felt myself growing impatient for the grit and challenge of life off-campus. It was, I suppose, a healthy impulse, a preparation for the change ahead.

And most of the time, I rather enjoy life in the so-called real world. The only problem is that it offers little opportunity to use my "degree". In my town, loiterers are frowned upon. Those who walk the streets for hours with no purpose, stop to sit on public grasses, or even spend too much time in the town library are suspected of being indigent, drug-addled, dangerous. To be fair, sometimes they are.

This week, however, has been an exceptional one for my inner-loiterer. On Tuesday night, I spent seven hours in a local cafe talking to a writer friend who was visiting from Canada. Time passed, the waitresses changed shift, and we continued to talk.
We had entered the place in bright sunshine, the streets filled with tourists eating ice-cream; and by the time, we left those same streets had become transformed into a dark and lonely place.

The following day I visited a small college town a couple of hours away. It is one of the most affluent, educated communities on the East coast, a place where there was no fear of loiterers. In fact, lingering and contemplating is encouraged by the design and attitudes of the town. Local employees took their lunch on the grass. No one looked askance when I found a tree, and set up camp with my lemonade and my notebook. There were comfortable chairs and footstools in every corner of the magnificent library.

Like Goldilocks, I tried every one. In one corner, I found some excellent books about Japan. In another, I lost a couple hours to the poetry collection. (When I discovered two volumes by Paul Zweig, I immediately reached for them, thinking of Dave who introduced me to him.) Then I went outside took in the bright colors of the world. No one seemed to question what I was doing. Loitering was the task of the day, and it was a day well spent.

Of course, we can't spend all our days wandering and thinking and reading poetry. Books would not be written; crops would wither in the fields; the gas bill would never be paid. And in the end, like a college student on the verge of graduation, we hunger for the demands and challenges of work--whatever that word entails for us. But if we never loiter, if we construct our towns from designs and attitudes that subtly or not so subtly prevent or condemn it, we lose something essential. Something that even horses innately understand.

35 comments:

marja-leena said...

Wow, excellent essay, Patry! Now I must get away from this hot office and go loiter in the cool shade of the garden for while!

Marilyn said...

SEVEN HOURS in a restaurant?! I'm impressed! I'm big into loitering...in fact I've been loitering (mostly indoors) all week. :) Nice post.

Patry Francis said...

marja-leena: Thanks! The cool shade of the garden sounds wonderful.

marilyn: Yes, seven hours--and never ran out of things to talk about either! I wonder if there are any records on this kind of thing--because I think we may have broken one. Thanks for loitering here a bit...and for your kind words.

Dave said...

It's something animals understand well.

Quite so. I read somewhere that, on average, mammals spend 60 percent of their time doing basically nothing. And let's not even talk about reptiles and amphibians...

Hope you enjoyed the Zweig.

Dave said...

And all this time I thought "simply wait" was a Kafka reference!

Lorna said...

If it's (choose one) Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday, I must be l oitering. I have a book and I'm not afraid to use it.

kate said...

. . . ahhh yes . . . you, yet again have posted about the very thing I've been mulling over all week: the fact that my full time 9-5 job hours are impinging on my living . . errrr, loitering :) Viva la loitering!

rdl said...

awhh, yes!! viva la loitering.

Patry Francis said...

dave: loitering with Zweig is an experience I won't soon forget. His work consistently surprises and startles me out of my complacency.

And yes, Simply Wait is rather perfect for a blogger who who majored in loitering and minored in procrastination.

lorna: Maybe that's why your thoughts are always so interesting!

kate: The 9-5 can definitely put a cramp in the loiterer's lifestyle. Guess that means you have to spend more time sitting under trees and having marathon talk sessions on the weekend.

r: We always were good at it, weren't we?

Laini Taylor said...

This is something I hadn't really thought about but you're so right -- college is a time of glorious loitering! I went to Berkeley, and the whole town was kind of like a park bench, a little crusty and likely to be shared with a crazy homeless person, but covered in philosophical graffiti and with a great view for people watching! Also, I don't know how long it's been on your profile but I just noticed about your book being published in Europe -- that's terrific! Congratulations!

Carmi said...

I love your take on loitering. I've always viewed this treasured activity as something akin to a skipped space between a couple of paragraphs. It isn't the be-all, end-all of our existence for precisely the reasons you cite. But the overall work just wouldn't be the same without these critical pauses.

Thank you for the timely reminder. I'll spend some time on the rock under our Canadian Maple tree tomorrow morning.

chiefbiscuit said...

Loitering is such a fine thing to do - Saturdays are great for loitering ... so far today I have loitered at an airport, by the window watching birds, at this computer screen ... Another lovely piece of writing. Thanks.

Sustenance Scout said...

Another memorable post, Patry! Yesterday I was able to watch the kids and loiter at the same time while they played in a stream in one of our favorite Denver parks. Sometimes the multitasking (aka juggling) we're forced to do can be done on a grassy spot in the sun or shade. I envy your proximity to that nifty college town, but if you're ever in the mood to loiter while watching the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains, just let me know.

Patry Francis said...

laini: Oh, Berkeley! What a wonderful place to loiter--love your description. And thanks for noticing the change in my profile. It has been a thrilling week around here!

carmi: A skipped space between paragraphs--what a perfect metaphor. Even when we're reading we want that permission to rest, to linger and take in, to close the book and return later.

chiefbiscuit: You are so right. Much of our loitering time is now spent at the computer screen. We wander, we click from place to place, and all too frequently we--or at least I--forget the work I'm supposed to be doing. Enjoy your Saturday!

scout: I have always wanted to see the Rocky Mountains...Hoping my book tour takes me there!

floots said...

enjoyed reading this
loitering
meandering
and
ruminating
are three of my favourite things
(horses can do 'em too)
cheers :)

zhoen said...

I often hurry to finish my work, so that I can sit and linger.

They also serve who only sit and loiter.

Dithering is good too.

paris parfait said...

What a great post - the joys of loitering! Something we all need to do more of, I think.

Patry Francis said...

floots: meandering. A good word, and more socially acceptable than loitering. At least, I haven't seen any signs prohibiting it lately.

zhoen: I almost forget about "dithering"--a wonderful pastime indeed.

paris: I always think that the art of leisure is more understood in Paris. But maybe I'm romanticizing?

Sara said...

Seriously, no loitering in your town? How sad. My true love and I accidentally spent nine and a half years in a town here where there just wasn't anywhere to loiter (except our own front steps or back yard, of course). It was a drive-through town, with few sidewalks and no cafés. We would simply drive to neighboring towns and loiter there.

When we moved, we looked specifically for a town in which we could loiter happily. Our new town has sidewalks, benches, a big fat library, bookstores, parks, fascinating cemeteries and historic houses, a river on which to sit in a canoe and dangle fingers into water, and a French café with outdoor seating in the summertime where we can loaf with pastries and coffee and chat up the passersby with dogs -- all in walking distance of our house. Our town has a literary and artistic heritage which is its bread and butter, so it's actually built for people to linger in with notebooks.

We're saving a lot of gasoline.

I always felt loitering in whatever spare time I could scrape together to be my right, ever more my right the older I've gotten, the more I've invested in my world, my community. I can't imagine feeling like I had to give it up once adolescence ended. That seems so wrong somehow. I always felt adulthood was supposed to make us freer. We are the adults now, the rule-makers, the status quo. Twenty-five years legally into it, yes even with all the Big Seriousness and my own share of chosen but inherently hobbling responsibility, I feel the exhilaration of that freedom even more. I wish you the same.

Sky said...

yayyy, patry! congrats on your publishing news - europe and usa both!

have you posted any promotional info on what the book is about? please link me if you have. :)

loitering...a lovely pastime for good friends who want to chat in public places! i love this activity following lunches and/or dinners when conversation seems most appealing yet we are not at a private residence! it is also a fun activity for parks and recreational areas where benches are readily available and people or animal observation is a sport!

sometimes we have to tip really well if we take up a station too long and prevent our wait person from having other opportunities for income - but how fun to claim squatting rights on our table! :)

Patry Francis said...

sara: I guess my town is similar to what you call a drive-through: no cafes or book stores, few sidewalks, a very small library where you quickly do your business and leave. You can loiter inside or in front of the convenience store on the major road, and a small group of regulars do. They play keno, smoke cigarettes, and check out the porn magazines. Since I'm not much interested in those things, I've never been tempted to join them, but I once wrote a story about a guy who did.

You can also loiter at the beach--a highly acceptable form of the "sport"--but alas, not one I particularly enjoy. (It's practically treasonous where I live, but the proverbial "day at the beach", replete with hot sand, and baking sun does nothing for me.) However, loitering by the sea at dusk, or sitting on the seawall in winter watching the gulls almost makes up for what we lack.

A lot of times I talk about moving somewhere more congenial, but with a motto like Simply Wait, I find time passes and I'm still studying the guys at the convenience store, or waiting for winter when I can take the dogs to the beach again.

Thank you for your wonderful, expansive comment.

Sky: Thank you for cheering me on--and for asking about my novel. I plan to have a Web site about the book up soon.

I loved that you thought of the waitresses when I described the number of hours I spent in the cafe. They were amazingly sweet about our squatting and we made sure they were well compensated for it.

Natalie said...

Patry, it must be an American thing, the "frowning on loitering". Over here, loitering with intent is practically compulsory. That's what pubs were invented for, especially in summer when they spill out onto the street and into the parks.
And you had a *horse barn* in college???

Sarsparilla said...

I hadn't thought of calling it loitering. That changes everything, rather.

Patry Francis said...

natalie: After I wrote this post, I thought about the joyful street cafes in Italy, and how people hung out for hours every night (at the time, mostly men, though that was 20 years ago.)

Here, though there are still whole towns and places in nearly every town where it's acceptable to "hang out". But in many places fear and shame prevent the kind of wandering and lingering that I enjoyed in that affluent college town last week.

Wherever there are bands of homeless people, or crime--as there is in the adjacent town where I spend much of my time--there is Fear. And with fear comes its ugly step-sister Shame. Hang around too long on the town green, or even in the library, and people start to look at you askance. Then you then start to look at yourself askance. (What's wrong with me? Don't I have something better to do?) Before long, you look in the mirror and see the ugly step-sister I mentioned staring back at you. Gah!

As for the horse barn, the state university here was previously an agricultural college and they still have a large department. We not only had horses, we had pigs, too! I almost forgot the joy of loitering with pigs.

Sarsparilla: I suppose loitering is a pejorative term. I must have picked it up from the ugly step- sister I encounter when I spend too much time in happy lingering. Anyway, nice to see you here!

MB said...

Thank you for articulating this. I need the reminder once in a while that it's valid to consider it useful. And I love the idea of city planning taking it into consideration.

Sherry said...

Have you read The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. If not, I think you'd like it.

Ronan Jimson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ron Sullivan said...

Sara sent me here, on the subject of loitering. Good call and thanks, Sara. I'm enjoying this.

Congrats on publication, Patry! Now if someone gives you the gimlet eye for loitering, you can say you're a writer gathering material. Come to think of it, anyone can use that one anytime.

As well as loitering per se, Joe and I spend time birding. That's either loitering on the move or (while "doing a Big Sit") just loitering in place and waiting to see what shows up. It's a lot like fishing but with different equipment and less chance of getting dinner.

We live in Berkeley, so there's lots of loitering space. This got better when -- whether just because of age and a grim expression, or my own discovery that I needn't be available to everyone at every moment for whatever they want -- I personally got the hang of not looking like a soft touch or a waiting ear all the time. People of all sorts still talk to me, but it's all less unbalanced and draining somehow.

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