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Everywhere we go in the city, we want to hear love songs: in restaurants, hotel lobbies, departure lounges. Even on escalators we strain to hear the least hint that we live not in a cold and unfeeling universe, but a cosmos whose every corner teems with irrational affection: "You have to believe we are magic..."
On the other hand, we're not always thrilled to see actual lovers, you know, smothering each other on the street. In real life, love is not so pretty, and often it fills us not just with envy, but a strange sense of foreboding. After all, as the songs say, love breaks boundaries; and as Dr. Laura herself tells us, irresponsible romance often creates unwed mothers and the unhappy stepchildren of third wives.
It's like a fierce, ongoing public debate--I mean this struggle between catchy lyrics and the messy truth itself.
Normally, the Urban Man listens to love songs in the privacy of his mid-sized automobile, but today it's in the shop, and I'm waiting for a bus on Pico Boulevard, where it's smoggy, it's hot, and I'm surrounded by people wearing the grim mask of the regular transit rider. A ragged man carries an old-fashioned transistor radio which plays Simply Irresistible, only small and tinny.
Folks give him nasty looks, but he's convinced he's bringing love to the masses.
Me, I'm watching a teenage couple with acne and stringy hair, hands in the pockets of each other's jeans, kissing demonstrably out here on the littered sidewalk, their affection a kind of giddy rebellion against the whole bleak morning. Each wears a cheap sweatshirt with a designer logo, and together they express an untidy innocence which pretends to beauty itself. Surely, they're kissing for our benefit, but I notice that most folks look away in discomfort. Are we just envious? Or are we thinking, "This is the kind of brief, hot attraction that leads to trouble, then disappears. The dark logic of life will soon intervene, and these kids will be riding the Number 7 bus with the same bleak spirits as ourselves."
Meanwhile more silly phrases squawk from the radio: "Bring all your dreams alive. Nothing can stand in our way."
As we get on, the driver tells the ragged man to can it, so the fervent couple become the only representatives of irrational affection. As they sit in the front row, their necking inspires unpleasant glances, and suddenly I imagine the whole bus breaking out into public debate.
The driver might begin by quoting Schopenhauer, who claimed that romance is just natural selection within the species, natural beauty calling out to natural strength. The aging academic in the third row would explain how romance is a silly illusion dating back only as far as poetry in the Middle Ages. The thin woman with the unhappy eyes would describe the way ill-considered attachments take a deep toll on our society. The first flush lasts only 18 to 36 months, she'd argue, and then... well, it's about loyalty and hard work.
Only then would the Urban Man silence the crowd. "All that may be true," I'd say. "But surely, here in the 21st century, romantic love is the only belief system we all share in common, the one irrational force we all acknowledge, the one altar to which we all still bow. That's why, even though we know better, you and I both listen to love songs hour after hour, day after day, everywhere we go. In fact, given the importance of a universal faith, ladies and gentlemen, I think you have no choice but to celebrate this pair, and watch their eager demonstration more closely."
At this, the young couple would execute a deep and sloppy kiss... and the Urban Man would get off at the next stop.
For KCRW, I'm Marc Porter Zasada.
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