HEAVEN IS NOT a farm.
If you spend too much time on the American Right--in either its demotic or romantic-intellectual forms--you might forget this essential truth. You'll be subjected to paeans to rural community; cities are so soulless! They're cold, artificial, out of touch with beauty (which explains why cities produce so little great art). City folk exemplify capitalist modernity at its most unnatural.
Well, I'm human, not natural. I like strangers, mostly because I am one. I'm also a resident of one of America's least-loved cities: her nation's capital. And my current address is an even harder sell for the conservative mind: the former gay ghetto, Dupont Circle. Here is a neighborhood where nobody's your neighbor. Yet everybody is.
Dupont in the summer favors one sense only--sight. On Saturday around the fountain, women in bright dresses saunter past men in sherbet-colored suits, giving one another the eye.
The other four senses aren't so lucky. You can usually placate taste with a Jack Daniel's chocolate ice cream sundae from Larry's. Touch is worse, since all you feel is your clothes sticking to your body. Smell, which in a District summer always seems to be shifting from honeysuckle to unhauled garbage, settles down to a one-note hum of sweat. And there are buskers, hiking out their guitars for the treacle of the counterculture: Dylan, Neil Young.
In the summer, God remembers the District and clamps down his palm on it. The city gets slow and flirtatious. We swelter under a low-slung skyline, teasing strangers.
The man next to me calls out to a group of women, "What country y'all from?" The darkest and most statuesque slowly turns her head toward him and, with a hometown voice laden with irony and resignation, replies, "This one." They laugh and shake their heads at one another and he settles back, foxed for the moment.
I'm told that country life teaches you patience and charity, since you can't get away from your neighbors or your past. Every day you pass the familiar scenes of your little victories and large heartbreaks.
The city teaches you patience and charity in a different way: You learn to negotiate among strangers. Every region has a different way of managing it--pop culture tells me that Midwesterners smile relentlessly, Southerners drink and fight, and Californians drive. D.C. flirts. If you don't interpret strangers' actions with charity and good humor, you'll go crazy here. …