You know the feeling of fellowship that suffuses people gathered around a motel swimming pool. All the guests are bound by the shared memory of having guided the same luggage cart down the same corridor, by the shared dream of the same coffee and cinnamon roll at the morning buffet, by the shared knowledge that they understand each other’s private spaces, right down to the towels and the paintings on the walls.
That is the power of place.
Or consider a “little platoon” of passengers assembled in an elevator. Consider their intimacies of glance, and even touch. Consider the almost familial knowledge that comes of standing only six inches apart. No man is a stranger after such close inspection of the weave of his shirt, the roots of his hairs, or the toes of his shoes. Affinity naturally blossoms in proximity. When I read that Wordsworth’s Michael grew to manhood in
“Fields where with cheerful spirit he had breathed the common air,”
I can only sigh and think of how I grew to manhood in the common air of elevator cars.
Place has a power to make a community even of people stopped at a red light, or caught in a traffic jam. How often the driver in the lane beside me has rolled down his window and sociably offered me a stick of gum. When it comes to cheerful solidarity, Londoners who gathered in tube stations during the blitz had nothing over Texans in heavy traffic. Our snarled intersections are buoyed by the same jocular pluck, the same sympathetic shrugs, the same emollient courtesies.
I must say that I disagree with the poet Cowper when he writes
“The great and small but rarely meet
On terms of amity complete”
Amity, friendship, fellow-feeling: these are essentially spatial terms. Men’s differences are as nothing if they will only come together in space and meet; and their amity will be most complete when they come together as strangers and by accident.
If you thirst for brotherhood, take your place at a urinal in an airport restroom. How companionable it feels to be in that fraternal space, united by a common aspiration and, needless to say, a common satisfaction. As we zip our flies and wash our hands, differences of class and nationality melt away, and we become, if only for that short space, a Männerbund von den Toiletten.
This Männerbund von den Toiletten is, I daresay, an intimation and foretaste of the cosmopolitan world that is to come. In much the same way as the old Christians said that beauty and love are an intimation and foretaste of heaven, we might say there is a foretaste of global community in the companionship of an airport restroom, a traffic jam, an elevator, or a motel swimming pool. In that not-so-distant day of true global brotherhood, men will not be united by creed or blood, but by place, and oh what places they will be!