Fifty paces from a coffee shop hawking overpriced sandwiches, I witness some kind of dusted-up vagrant using a Diet Coke can as a toilet, and it was then I knew I was downtown. The peoples of downtown live in a variety of converted housing, old rat hovels repainted and laid with mahogany floors, or new blueprints drawn up and plopped down next to a crack den—it’s “festive,” lot’s of “urban appeal.” I cannot understand these weird beasts, humans, new to the hipster manual, living on some massive tit that’s invariably hidden to the rest of us. Every downtown is like this, brick buildings surrounded by new development, apartment buildings drawn to the old streets and wooden doors like some sort of culture magnet. Rows of coffee shops and vintage clothing stores line the main drag, lit with Christmas lights year round, more wine and tapas than you’d ever require. What drives me goofy is how the place doesn’t fall in on itself. Trendy peoples are always out at the pseudo-delis buying twenty dollar turkey sandwiches, leaving their dogs on Atkins diets to cook in the sunshine, and running the whole exercise without holding down any noticeable employment. It’s their day off—it has to be—the original human manuals never meant for us to have that much espresso.
Living downtown seems to be a twenty-four hour game of chicken with your personal safety. Every time I’m in the place after the sun goes down, the alcohol zombies come clawing out from the corners, drunks and switch-bladed hooligans accosting me with every step. Maybe it’s the way I look, something about me might be a beacon for harassment. My wife tells me that as a balding, bearded, six-foot two-hundred fifty-something big-knuckled Czech leftover, my appearance invites alpha-male staring contests when I’m just out trying to get a burger. I don’t want to fight these vampires, I’d rather get on with my burger and go home, but when you want to have fun downtown, it comes with a certain level of acceptance that you might get tuned up by a drag queen having an off-night. The people I know who live in these places look at me like I’m making it all up, like they’re blitzed on some twisted hallucinogen that paints everything they see in high fructose pastels. They don’t see a man threatening you with a rusted bike chain, they see the Easter bunny holding a bag of roses. “I don’t know where you go, maybe you were in a rough part of downtown,” they say to me with shrugged shoulders. “You madman!” I think to myself. “This is no place for children! Fucking knives and guns and exposed genitals everywhere! Limber up, something dangerous is out here, and it will aim for the face.”
While the night is treacherous, the day is even more terrible and mysterious. I’ve held a proper job downtown more than once, and it’s the same everywhere, streets flooded with people who all know the score. You enter a restaurant, maybe a downtown hot-spot—a landmark with the world’s best whatever—and all you find is a confusing ruse, a directionless process that only the locals know by birthright. Nobody will help you either, and all you’ll get in return for a question is a long drawn out sigh. Lunch spots with no menu, you only order by elaborate hand gesture. Don’t ask for potato chips here friend, we only serve fried sprouts. Stop trying to form a straight line to the food, we stand in a triangle in this shop. What are you doing? Is that money? We operate on a cash-card, and you have to apply for one by goddamned carrier pigeon. All you’ve come for is a meal, but now your body has seized up from the anger, your mind breaks and everything goes black. “Sod the lot of you in this madhouse!” you scream, throwing a metal stool through the front window. “I do not speak your crooked language!” You wake up hours later, surrounded by styrofoam cups and plastic trays, everything slick with dark crimson violence.
They speak in their own coded language, an ancient form of tactics-based direction that kilted soldiers used nine hundred years ago. A downtown person will always know what the next thing is, and when it’s popping off. You may drive to work one day, baffled at the streamers in the trees and the broken lightbulbs in the grass, but the downtown person has the skinny, and they will never tell you, at least in a way you can comprehend. Something wonderful happened the previous night, signaled to a thousand trust funds, a ping in the darkness to every downtowner. “We’re having a rave at Kimber’s house. Bring swimming goggles and six jars of marmalade jam.”
I knew a photographer that was a downtowner. He lived in some ridiculously spacious wood floored quarters, and the two hundred dollars a month he’d earned certainly couldn’t push his life along, the mortgage and utilities simply paid by the universe or some generous blood benefactor that every downtowner has access to. The man stopped me and said, “Wow, last night was awesome. It was, like, ninety degrees out, so we all put on our snow gear and rode bikes up and down the streets. It was great.” Madness. There wasn’t a flyer for this, some community organizer that knows the to-and-fro of the downtown, no, he’d heard it on the radar, a wave of nausea followed by immediate understanding overcame him while he was sitting on the toilet, merely an hour before the event. Like commanded golems, the switch flipped, and without thought, he tried to kill himself in the middle of the street on a borrowed bicycle.
I’m not certain I’ll ever decode the workings of downtown. They survive somehow, finding a way to pay for fifty dollar sandwiches, avoiding the crusted blades of the junkie, and never needing an automobile. They all work downtown —they have to—those who know what that word actually means. Nobody commutes to an outside place when you’re downtown—the farmer’s market and the liquor store are all they need—vegan risotto and jug wine to keep them skipping up and down to the dog bakery. Outsiders are entranced by the charm of everything. We drive down and point to the small-town preservation we see in the buildings, actual retail joints still operational, real brick, and not a Best Buy for miles and miles. Then, they try to park. There are meters downtown, of course, but they’re perpetually occupied by decoy cars, dummies designed to have you circle the block for an hour until you give up and leave the utopians and their knitted shoes in peace.
It’s too much for this author, and I’m among the beasts on-the-daily. I’m the wild-bearded veteran with tattered green clothes, I’ll find you in the woods—shivering and alone—and I will teach you to hunt. If you keep your head down, make no assumptions, and always keep a box of bandages and a pair of glasses with no lenses at the ready, you’ll survive the day. Bring your own food, I hope I’ve made that part clear. Save your restaurant dining for the suburbs, where the first-world problems are all the more clear. Here you can waltz into a place and order as many eggs as you damn well please, and yes, they do have ranch dressing and they do take Visa. Don’t attempt this nonsense downtown. The hostess and wait-staff down there are too busy with their really interesting clothing, snapping aimless vague photos for Facebook with vintage filters, all to illustrate they’re having more fun than you. They are monsters of a trend, frail bodies fueled by burnt coffee and clove cigarettes—and they will never run down.