Nameless, maybe, but no stranger

Posted July 09, 2009, at 8:33 p.m.

One advantage of living in a city is being able to walk out your front door and arrive — 10 minutes later and still on foot — at the opening of a photography exhibition. No parking, no driving, no buses.

In denser urban centers, much is within short walking distance. I slipped on my sandals, grabbed my keys and headed down the street.

As I went, I thought about how novel it was to be able to walk down a city street as part of a nameless crowd. Few people know me here in Baltimore, and after living in the close quarters of Antarctic research stations, the idea of urban anonymity can be appealing. I imagined myself assuming a kind of unidentified invisibility as I locked the front door of my apartment behind me — one person in a city of many people.

I had hardly shut my front door behind me, though, when a neighbor called out a greeting. “It’s a muggy day out,” she said. “But I can’t wait to start up the grill.” We chatted for a few minutes before I continued to walk toward the gallery; surely this time, I thought, into the “nameless crowd.”

Despite my expectations, people continued to volley conversation back and forth on the main street, and I found that without trying, I got sucked in. Everyone made eye contact, nodding to one another. I was waiting at a crosswalk when the man next to me pointed at my sandal-clad feet. “That’s what I’d like right now,” he said. “Get home and get my toes out there. Can’t wear no flip-flops when you work construction!” I laughed. My aspirations for invisibility were rapidly melting away, and yet I couldn’t say that I minded.

Reaching the gallery, I walked inside to a packed room lined with stunning photographs. Titled “Kashmir Through the Lens,” the exhibition featured the work of six photographers from the Kashmir region at the intersection of India, China and Pakistan. Brightly colored images hung on the walls.

Portraits of people with carved, chiseled features looked down at me, their faces worn by harsh living conditions and etched with laughter. Their heads and bodies were draped in unusual, vividly colored clothing in contrast with the hues of the sweeping landscapes behind them. The photographers had truly captured the land-scape, life and people of the area. Surrounded by their photos, I felt as though I had been transported to Kashmir.

To my surprise, a man introduced himself to me as one of the photographers, asking if I had any questions about the work. “What struck you the most, being there?” I asked him.

“The unexpected generosity of the people we met,” he said. “The hospitality that they showed to us. They had so little, and yet they shared so much. They had learned to endure so much hardship, but with great grace.” he said.

The artist soon was called away and I continued to circulate around the exhibit, making my way inevitably to a food-laden table at the center of the room. I was happily diving into the strawberries when a woman about my mother’s age greeted me and introduced herself.

“How did you find out about the exhibit?” she asked me, shaking my hand. “You’re what, 24 years old?” She hardly paused for breath as she overflowed with enthusiasm. “I run a gallery downtown. Come talk to me. I’m nonprofit — it’s not much, but it’ll get you on a wall. You’ve been here a month? Fantastic! Here, meet my daughter and my son and their friends …”

I found myself being towed around the room and introduced to at least a dozen people in a flurry of unexpected friendliness. I felt suddenly awkward and inarticulate, stuttering my responses and shaking hands with one stranger after another, but no one seemed to notice if I stumbled. Everyone smiled at me, bidding me a heart-felt welcome to the city, and I smiled back gratefully.

Later, on my way home, the images of Kashmir filled my head along with the flurry of new people I had just met. The most important thing that the photographers had wanted to convey to us was the hospitality, kindness and friendliness of the people of Kashmir. They had not expected such a welcome from the local people, and it had knocked them right off their feet.

I knew exactly how they felt.

As I rounded the corner of the park on my way home, a girl sitting on a park bench looked up at me gave me a long, measured glance. “That’s a nice dress,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said. “I hope you have a good evening.” Then I continued on my way, just another face in the crowd on a not-so-anonymous Baltimore city street.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday.

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