Family folk-lore has it that at a wee age I was given an apple to taste, took one lick of its outer peel, and promptly rejected it.
I did the same with the Big Apple–swore, after one visit, that I would NEVER, EVER live in big, bad, noisy New York City. And yet, here I am, in a shoe-box apartment on the sixth floor for which I sacrifice my two favorite limbs in rent every month.
One would think at first glance that Manhattan is a tough place for an introverted country girl. At any given moment there are eight million people and twice as many rats (though in fairness some may have been counted in both categories). Solitude is not the “s” word that comes to mind when one thinks of city life.
But I have learned that there is a point at which quantity changes quality, at which crowds actually lend themselves to anonymity. If you are at a dinner party with 8 people you will probably care what they think of you. It is much harder to care what 8 million people think.
I suspect that people who live in the city have adapted by tuning out 99.9% of their visual (and auditory) surroundings, and so in turn are comfortable being “themselves” confident that nobody really notices. Sure, tourists unaccustomed to the chaos might gawk a bit, but that is why we relegate most of them to Time Square and subject them to a quantity of pulsing lights that could power an African country, until their senses are sufficiently annihilated or they get hungry and find a restaurant in which they can spend their vacation budget on a hamburger and strawberry margarita then go broke and go home.
But if said tourist were to wander outside the designated area and into the subway system, he or she would immediately encounter the bizarre combination of intimacy and anonymity that is New York City.
Have you ever watched a bathtub drain? It is the same steady rushed-but-slow pour of people down into the subway tunnels in the a.m. rush hour. You may enter the stream cautiously but you will quickly find yourself pulled into the current and propelled by the flow through the turnstiles (so long as you have not forgotten to fill your Metro Card, the sin of which will make you think that you have landed in an Eddie Murphy film on fast-forward).
Once there, you will find yourself pressed into a single subway car with a million other Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, close enough to reproduce, yet not exchanging so much as a glance or a smile. The unspoken Golden Rule seems to be “Thou shalt not notice thy neighbor” as everyone keeps eyes, hands and thoughts to themselves. It is eerily quiet, except for the soft buzz of electronic devices and the slosh of caffeinated beverages held as tightly as the lips of those who know they must soon face the harsh reality of the work world.
Just a few hours later, when the clock strikes 5:00, this same stream returns with urgency but now the caffeine has done its work and the stream chatters and bubbles away with deafening enthusiasm. Like a jack-in-the-box, the stresses of the day come bounding out in sometimes alarming ways.
Only nobody is actually alarmed, because they are too busy talking over the crowd to hear what anyone else in the crowd is actually saying.
Occasionally, a stray line may escape into listening ears. Some of my favorites:
“Well, she’s the one who… [something indiscernible] …ate her dead husband’s ashes.”
“Yeah it’s kind of hard to [date] him when you’ve made out or slept with all of his friends.”
“I don’t know why she was so stressed out. It’s not like it was alive.”
“Yeah, everyone steals a car at least once in their life…” (Ok, that one was actually from Metro North, but I thought it merited inclusion).
* * *
Every once in a while, there comes a group who wishes to test this unflappable NYC spirit. Tomorrow, for example, is the 14th Annual No Pants Subway Ride in which thousands of participants seeking to show exactly what they are made of, will ride the subway at 3 p.m.–without pants. And without smiles–because the only rule is that one must keep a straight face.
Happy First Sunday of Ordinary Time!
Featured Image by Scott Bauer, USDA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Above Photo: Matthew Paris, photo by Heidi Paris