Tuesday, October 23, 2007

RS: Do you see what I see?

Standing at any street corner in New York City, I wonder if the old adage isn’t completely wrong. It seems to me that everyone is an island, vacant and disconnected as they push their way toward urgent destinations. Some engage with their surroundings, taking in the buildings or the bustle of the ongoing bustling; but minus the horny come hitherings of a few, we truly don’t seem to see eye to eye. I see it constantly, and I am one of them.

Part of it is survival. Even in a concrete jungle, looking an animal directly in the eyes can be an act of aggression. Part of it is priority. Are you really inclined to make new friends on the street when you are heading off to join friends already made? Part of it is tourism. What is the endless fascination with construction? And it should count as justifiable homicide if you wipe out an entire family of polyester-clad fat asses is walking brood abreast and making our walkways impassable. Part of it, I suspect, is fear. There is risk in connection and suffering in rejection.

I have known recent transplants who vowed not to become a callous pusher, committing walking hit and runs without courtesy of an “excuse me.” They have, without exception, been bruised into brashness. In some cases, I simply never heard from them again. Perhaps they felt further contact with me would suck the compassion right out of them. I do hope some of them have successfully preserved some of their humanity. I, sadly, have not. I have portioned it for my private life and have devolved from compassionate to cold on the streets.

I have a friend who walks in the city constantly. Not for the purposes of arriving, just journeying to enjoy the city, take it in, and burn a few calories. She walks untold miles per year—okay, to be fair she has told me several times, I just can’t remember. Because it has become a part of her life, not an interruption to living, and, no doubt, because she has in her five decades learned to integrate her private and public selves, she does manage to see things. Many things. Perhaps, at moments, everything. Even she avoids certain routes at certain times to avoid certain traffic. And when it becomes unavoidable, even she grows weary and, occasionally, resentful.

We are a cold lot on this island of Manhattan. But is it possible we are any different than brethren elsewhere? My family lives in a place that is impossibly different. They see folks on the street and smile and nod and sometimes even stop to say “how do?” Unless, of course, they happen to be a stranger. At the end of the day, is it any different here? We are an island of strangers. There’s just more of us. But is it necessary that we strangers live so estranged?

I decided to conduct a little experiment. I pulled the ear phones out of my ears and put down my invisibility cloak, my portable CD player. Now, I know I am one of the last upright beings with opposable thumbs who doesn’t own an iPod. There could be two things that prevent me from getting one. One, laziness. I have no interest in spending my free time loading all number of songs onto a drive and copying them and managing them and waiting and waiting and waiting. The thought of it bores me, so the actuality might send me into a coma. Two, I am a control freak when it comes to music. I know what I want to listen to when I leave the house. I also tend to be a little obsessive. So, when I am in the mood to hear a particular show tune, I can listen to it over and over again and again and again before I am done with it. (I’ve also seen every episode of The Golden Girls at least 25 times each and can identify several episodes from the opening credits. It doesn’t take much to get me fixated. I’ve seen the current revival of Chicago almost 20 times. And I have seen the movie Frances over 35 times. While it might not bode well for my mental health, it is a tremendous movie with such exhilarating performances that it amazes me every time. I am an enthusiastic fan. I love the things I love and hate things with equal passion.) So, the portable CD player gives me a sense of control—I know I can control the iPod too, but I am used to the CD player which, I guess, takes us back to laziness which, I guess, means I lied about the number of excuses.

But I can walk down the street listening to Blow Gabriel Blow and reenact the choreography from the community theatre production I did in 1992—I was Billy Flynn, not Reno Sweeney, so I just sat there in the klink during the number, but I had that sucker memorized to a gesture. That subsequently gets me recounting, moment by moment, the time I sang the song at the First Southern Baptist Church in my hometown with a kid who’d played the trumpet in the high school band. And that leads to the time I saw the show in London with Elaine Paige. And on and on and on. As you can imagine, I don’t have much time for engaging with my neighbor when I’m concentrating on reliving such pivotal experiences from my past. Why risk a new pivotal moment when you’ve got that bank of old ones built up?

So, with nothing but a cheap suit and a shit-eating grin between me and the rest of the world, I walked toward the subway with curiosity my shadow. And, oh, the thoughts you think with the incessant underscoring withheld. As I made my way to the turnstile at the downtown N/R, a young gentlemen asked me for directions. I wasn’t the only one around and he came to me. He picked me out of the crowd. Was it my accessibility? Was I skipping through life with less hostility? Was I less intimidating without my don’t-fuck-with-me earphones entrenched? Or was I convenient? Whatever it was that I was, I was available to engage. Gave him directions. We got on the same train and he kept looking at me. Maybe he’d found me attractive. Maybe I had a big booger in my nose and my flaring nostrils were like a car crash he couldn’t look away from. Yeah, I can go from lovely to lunatic in 4.5 seconds. But I did go right back to lovely pretty quickly. By the time I got to the next station, I’d picked out china patterns and named the first three Chinese babies we’d adopt. Maybe he kept looking over because I was googly-eyed and scared the crap out of him. As I began to hear strains of Oh Promise Me—the voices in my head are very talented singers—an express train pulled up and I crossed over.

You would have thought I’d stepped onto the train and promptly farted. People wanted nothing to do with me. Yes, I was from the other side of the tracks; but is the local train a symbol of an unspoken caste system that nobody explained to me? And they noticed me. I caught nearly everyone one of them looking at me, but they managed to look away just in time. The train didn’t move and my discomfort mounted. When the third local had come and gone, I decided to wander back to my real friends over on the local track. Inferior my ass. I got where I was going a heck of a lot faster on the local, and without the attitude. Fuck you, N-trainers.

My friends back on the local held my gaze a split second longer than on the express but not much. And there was no compassion behind the eyes. Just a look, then a look away. If they could have looked through me, they would have. I really missed my portable CD player, and it was starting to hurt my feelings. I arrived at my destination, did my business, and then decided to walk home. Perhaps the view from the sidewalk would be more inviting than the subterranean perspective. It wasn’t. I did notice a crazy person going down the street screaming, “That fucking shit is fucked.” I couldn’t disagree, even though I had no idea to what he was referring. A few others bumped into me, cut me off, or generally just avoided me. I saw a woman walking with a portable CD player. It could be coincidental but she was a total freak—a clinical diagnosis I was able to make in my 30 seconds of exposure. Trust me, the DSM-IV would back me up on that one.

My experiment continued on for the next week. It didn’t get any better. Mostly, folks were just a little disconnected. And I take responsibility for my own role in it. A visiting mother and daughter from out of town asked me for directions. I gave them and walked away even though I was getting off at the same stop. I couldn’t be bothered with a big old, yee haw, we just come to the city and we sure do like it conversation with Granny and Ellie Mae. I just didn’t have it in me that day. I’m probably just not a particularly friendly person.

Somedays it is more than I want to take in. The loneliest place I’ve ever been in my life is a crowded sidewalk in New York City. I just haven’t quite figured out how to build a bridge off this island. The bitch of it is, when you want to be seen, no one seems to look you in the eyes. And so you learn to hide yourself in plain sight with armor of earphones. And I learned something important—so I bought an iPod.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I totally understand where you're coming from but if you keep open, you might make eye contact and get a kick out of it! I always look into people's eyes as I pass them, I just do for some reason, unless I'm in an awful mood. Just last week I was crossing the street, when I looked into the eyes of this VERY attractive man. I sort of recognized him so I grinned, we both did a double take (he because I looked him in the eye and grinned and me because I realized it was Rufus Sewell). We looked at each other again and I gave him a bigger grin, he looked at me with a slight smile and we moved on. Yum! That's why I love New York!