When I was still working for someone else, I made an arrangement with an accommodating boss that I would work on Sunday and instead take a Wednesday off. This was one of the loveliest things I did (for the brief while it lasted). I would wake up each Wednesday with an irrational exuberance, the feeling that the entire day stretched out in front of me with endless possibility. I would grab an early breakfast and be out of the house by 9. I would rapidly do my weekly chores, especially enjoying the ones that involved interacting with other people, such as dropping off the laundry, or getting a haircut, or grocery shopping. There are few things in this world that give me as much joy as taking a day off when everyone else is busy working.
The day would peak mid morning, when, after the morning rush, the streets would be empty – emptier than a weekend, emptier than a holiday. Sometimes I would go to Santana Row, an upmarket collection of shops in San Jose, just sitting on an outdoor bench watching old men play chess or looking at moms with infants bustle in and out of shops. I might drop into a hobby store or a library or buy a bottle of wine – the feeling was miraculous, that all the milling crowds had been quietly and safely sequestered in their anonymous workplaces, barricaded behind offices and schools, clearing the roads and shops for special service for a special customer – me. The busiest of department stores would be nearly empty, and the shop assistants would be so grateful for my presence that dispelled the tedium of aloneness, even if only for a few minutes, that we would stand and have conversations like old friends.
Every city is my friend in its emptiness. I love driving in Chennai at night, the wide boulevards that have no cars on them, feeling this city was constructed to be nothing more than a toy for me. Nowhere was this exhilaration more than when, one lazy afternoon in Bhutan, I strolled through one of their nerve centers of worship – the Punakha dzong – meeting no one except a cousin, two monks and a dog. It was as though I was discovering a magical treasure-house (though all Bhutan was one) hidden in the midst of ordinary clamour.
Ah, the joys of dipping into a loneliness, like a midsummer swimming break, preceded and succeeded by society. The world was built for busy men and women, but in the haste and bustle of our urban lives, sometimes there is no treasure that is as precious as a touch of privacy in the middle of the multitude.