I can remember the moment I knew I had become used to New York.
One night, coming home around 3AM, I was on the subway alone. I had never been on a subway car alone. I actually got scared. The crowds that before had seemed like a sea of potential muggers – or at least an arm crushing nuisance – suddenly seemed like a protective mob. Without the hoard, I felt weirdly vulnerable. I was so happy when we pulled into the Canal street stop and a loud group of drunk kids walked in.
For people who don’t grow up surrounded by other people, New York can be something of a shock. Everyone knows this city is crowded. What people don’t talk about is the fact that it can feel like you never have any privacy or space. Sure, there are the soundproofed and privacy shielded apartments that afford a certain amount of absolute alone time. But the majority of us, as Gilbert Blythe put it, being “not overburdened by worldly wealth”, can only aspire to such a luxury. The rest of us live in apartments where we can hear – and often see – our neighbors. At the very least, you might have a wonderful view of the residents across the street. This obviously means they can see and hear you as well. Many of us also have roomates, sometimes in a space designed for one. What this all adds up to is that even in your own home you usually must put in the earbuds, pull down the shades, and close your eyes to get a true moment of peace in your own head. No wonder yoga is so popular.
I imagine it can be overwhelming if you are used to being in a sprawling suburban house. I sometimes see what I usually assume are new transplants to the city on the subway, seemingly trying to compress themselves into a neutron star so they don’t have to OMG TOUCH SOMEONE. It’s pretty amusing to watch. Even though I sometimes think, “get over it, we don’t have cooties” I feel their pain. I’m used to it, and even I sometimes bolt from the train like a racehorse after 15 minutes of the rush hour tuna can. It’s just part of the occasional lack of personal space that is part of living in a packed urban environment and most people adapt. Still, it can add to the sense of being crowded 24 hours a day.
In stores, even large stores, the people can jostle and shove. You are just trying to get a can of soup and someone is behind you yelling “EXCUSE ME” before they elbow check you into a shelf of Campbell’s. People will snatch a shirt out of your hand on the way out of the dressing rooms. They’ll push you aside if you aren’t browsing that crate of Ralph Lauren sheets fast enough.
Suddenly you start to think there is no safe place where you are not being touched by other bodies. New York starts to feel like a constant round of hand to hand combat. A friend of mine said after the excitement of living in the city evaporated and the crush of New York bodies, air, space, and time all set in, she felt like she “was in quicksand all the time.” Luckily that passed – thanks in part to a combination of cocktails and the aforementioned yoga. For some people it never passes. They get tired of the noise and the people and paying through the nose for limited space that blocks out neither. They move away to more serene locations and find their peace, and the city forgets about them, as it forgets anyone who stops participating in the din.
As for me, I love the noise. I was excited when spring warmed it up enough for me start keeping my windows open. I want to hear the city. I love the shouting and the cars, the too-loud salsa music. I even love the crowds on the sidewalks and in the bars.
I love how it makes me feel more alive, being surrounded by so much life.
And when I need the streets to myself there is always 5am.