Getting By in the City

Posted on July 7, 2010

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Living in NYC is demanding in a lot of ways. Just going out into public space is an invitation to demands for money (subway breakdancers, delicious iced coffee, plastic surgery with no money down) and attention (crazy people, PA announcements, ads for romcoms about unplanned pregnancy [really, guys? this is the best idea you’ve got?], enticing eavesdroppable conversations). Spending all your time at the mercy of other people this way is exhausting. Ignoring someone who reaches out for money (and who almost certainly needs it) has an negative effect on you; being unable to afford something you desire has a negative effect on you (and desire is exactly what every storefront and glistening photo of This Weeks New Neologistically-Named Beverage is honed to produce).

John Cage said that Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. This is true. But we cannot afford to always be listening. There are times when we must conserve energy. I can’t count how many times I’ve been on the subway, thinking, coasting towards my next obligation, when I’ve overheard a conversation about, say, how unbelievably wonderful it feels to know that God is all around you, lifting up your spirit. Or watched a urine-stained religious fanatic chase a guy around a subway car for snapping along with her impromptu hymn. It’s draining. The former example because it presents a way of living so essentially different from mine, which I then have to consider and imagine and get confused about why writing weird pop songs about girls matters in the face of such things. The latter because some people’s lives are fucked up and there’s nothing I can do about it except watch while they take it out on one another. Also because listening to people scream at each other is nervewracking on a very fundamental physical level.

It doesn’t even have to be a conversation, either. It could be someone’s headphones leaking thumping club tracks, or someone’s fingers absently drumming on the plastic seats. There is always something. This is why New Yorkers are a distinct species from other human beings and also why, when your friend or sibling moves here, you can gradually watch her become covered in a glossy exoskeleton of boredom and smug cynicism. We need it.

Every once in a while a train from the city arrives just as I’m heading up the ramp, and a swarm of tired commuters comes at me like a stampede. I could flatten myself against the railing on the right side of the ramp in a meek attempt to squeeze by, but I don’t. What I do is puff my chest and shoulders out and glare coldly into the eye of every schemer who tries to beat the crowd by hopping into my lane. Until he moves. If someone doesn’t move enough, I let my shoulder jostle his. This aggression is, I (like to) think, unlike me. But it’s how I keep cool. Jostling someone is infinitely less stressful than being jostled. This is the principle that underlies pretty much every social interaction in the five boroughs.

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Posted in: city life