Meanwhile: An Illustrated Love Letter to the Living Fabric of a City and Our Shared Human Longing to Be Understood
A tender reminder that however vast our differences, we are bonded by the yearning to feel seen for who we are.
By Maria Popova
I’ve written before that every city needs a love letter. Though Meanwhile, in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words (public library | IndieBound) by illustrator extraordinaire and frequent Brain Pickings contributor Wendy MacNaughton — who gave us the wonderful Lost Cat, one of the best books of 2013 — may be “about” a city, in the sense that the raw inspiration was drawn from the streets of San Francisco, it is really about the city, any city — about community, about subcultures and belonging, about the complexities of gentrification, about what it means to have individual dignity and shared identity.
Like a modern-day Margaret Mead armed with ink and watercolor, not a critic or commentator but an observer and amplifier of voice, MacNaughton plunges into the living fabric of the city with equal parts curiosity and compassion, gentleness and generosity, wit and wisdom, and emerges with a dimensional portrait painted with honesty, humor, and humility.
Beneath the individual stories — of the bus driver, of the hipsters, of the old men in Chinatown, of the librarian, of the street preacher — lies a glimpse of our shared humanity, those most vulnerable and earnest parts of the human soul that we often overlook and dismiss as we reduce people to their demographic and psychographic variables, be those race or gender or socioeconomic status or subcultural identification. Embedded in these simple, moving stories is MacNaughton’s tender reminder that there is no greater gift we can give each other than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing, of peering beyond the persona and into the person with an awareness that however different our struggles and circumstances may be, we are inextricably bonded by the great human longing to be truly seen for who we are.
We meet the Mission Hipsters, who might as well be the Williamsburg Hipsters*, or the Insert-Any-City’s-Neighborhood-That-Has-Become-Synonymous-With-Hipsters Hipsters, an affectionate portrait of the cultural trope, down to “hand-knit dog sweater #62”:
And speaking of dogs, any dog-lover would relate to MacNaughton when she writes, “I don’t know any of the dog owners’ names, but I know all their dogs.'”
Many of the stories, which were originally created for MacNaughton’s column Meanwhile in The Rumpus, are also a meditation on the realities, often tragicomic realities, of modern life:
Others offer a lens on the invisible and often misunderstood threads that hold a community together, like the board games people play on the sidewalks of Chinatown, any Chinatown.
We’re reminded, too, of the heartening resurgence of maker culture in the digital age.
One of the most poignant stories is that of two intersections “a block away [yet] a universe away”: 5th and Mission streets on the one hand, a mecca for rapid gentrification and $6 soy lattes, and 6th and Mission on the other, a land of homelessness and produce scarcity. There are, MacNaughton writes, four types of people on 6th and Mission: residents of single-room occupancies, folks who sleep in a shelter and hang out on 6th street during the day, those who work on 6th street, and passers-by. On 5th and Mission, the four archetypes come from a different world: programmers, tourists, business people, and … Australians. (Among the book’s many gifts is MacNaughton’s penchant for infusing even the most uncomfortable of subjects with warm and amicable wit.)
Then there are the old-school Dolphin Club Swimmers, who plunge into the freezing waters of the Bay to swim alongside the dolphins as an eccentric yet immensely life-affirming antidote to the bystander quality of modern life.
But as a lover of libraries, I found the most heartwarming section to be the one about the San Francisco Public Library, where we meet Leah, “the first and only full-time social worker dedicated to a library, anywhere,” Charles, a formerly homeless man now employed at the library’s health and safety division, and the library’s colorful patrons, a microcosm of the city itself.
Mostly, however, Meanwhile is a gentle invitation to do as the title implies — pause and spend some time with those invisible, in-between moments that often slip unnoticed as we float in the trance of our big-plan-making lives. Because, after all, John Lennon was right when he sang that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” in Double Fantasy. It is in those meanwhile-moments, captured in MacNaughton’s beautiful ink-and-watercolor illustrations, that the fantasy collapses and the dizzying vibrancy of reality springs to life.
Bonus joy: A number of the spreads from the book are available as prints.
Images courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton / Chronicle Books
* This illustration is the only one from the book not from the Rumpus series — it was originally created for a Bold Italic piece by Stuart Schuffman.
Published March 18, 2014