“The first problem of living is to minimize friction with the crowds that surround you on all sides.”
― Isaac Asimov
Blundering through the bowels of Penn Station, I dodge the onslaught of long-distance travelers, commuters, and daytrippers. They stumble but push on like the rabid, drunken squirrels they are…bumping, nipping, and clawing their way to their destination, often in the wrong direction. I pause and reflect…After all, these are my fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in arms. Are we not all mere rats, doing our best to grab daily crumbs in the ever-shrinking cage of the Big Apple…A poignant tear wells up in my left eye…Shame on me, shame on me for getting mad at this wonderful human avalanche rolling down the flat slopes of our little city, scurrying down a tiny slice of our fragile, beautiful Earth…FUCK! I shove the large, sweaty man’s rolling suitcase, which has encroached upon my moment of tranquility, brushing my man purse against it with gentle authority, in a clutch demonstration of passive aggression. “TWO LANES, PEOPLE!” I remind the faceless crowd.
When did I become this stymied curmudgeon? Surely not middle school, where I kept my head down and hoped the cool American kids wouldn’t notice my poorly kempt curly pompadour and ridiculous wool sweater vest that wouldn’t become cool until the 21st century phenomenon of ironic getups at holiday parties. Surely not Russian summer camp, where I kept my head down avoiding the older Russian kids who were more off the boat than I was but actually spoke to girls. Surely not high school, where half the kids kept their heads down anyway and everyone in our hippie school sat on the floor, bullshitting during their free periods. Surely not college, where any mob gathering on campus or in the Commons of the “Most Enlightened Town in America” (Utne Reader, 1997) was cause for wonder or celebration to break up the stillness of rural Upstate New York. Surely not in my first decade of post-collegiate life spent in a south Brooklyn hamlet barely distinguishable from the one I grew up in, where Turkish, Russian, and Urdu speakers rarely constituted more than a smattering of human life on the street.
No, surely the transformation occured sometime after I willingly embraced residential life in Manhattan, in all its enduring and unendurable madness. Sure, I’d worked and traveled to “the city” twice a day for as long as I’d held a college degree (and even earlier), for the better part of two decades. You’d think in that time my mind and liver would have accustomed themselves to daily stresses and controlled chaos of life in the city. But working in the city and living in the city are two different animals.
When you punch in and out on this wonderful, horrible, inscrutable island like so many of the 5 million subterranean commuters making the trip day in and day out, you may not know it, but you’re scarcely more than a business traveler, no matter if your trip is 15 minutes from DUMBO or and hour plus from the Rockaways. You grab your book, iPad, laptop, or makeup kit, and make the best of transit life, emerging from the bowels of FiDi and Midtown only to duck into your office and to reverse the process some hours later. Morning and evening, you don your impassive New Yorker mask–the one that treats sinners, hustlers, and madmen with the same calm restraint, betraying no hint of emotion or surprise save for moments of true life-and-death split-second decision-making and unity–when New Yorkers show their true mettle and empathy.
When Manhattan was my office I, like so many of my fellow toll-payers, tolerated the endless layers of humanity curdling at the edges of the subway platform, eyes buried in a thick book or daydreaming. I’d spy my sliver of a seat in a row of exhausted Russian and Chinese immigrants and, like a “smart” microcar, cram myself into the wedge, some days chivalrously ceding the hole to an older lady, other days wrestling her for it (if my book was really good). Now, spoiled by my 15-minute commutes and, perhaps, subconsciously resentful that I am no longer afforded an hour and a half guaranteed date with my book, I am, in many ways, more agitated than I ever was in Brooklyn. “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.” Louis CK’s words follow me throughout the day. The 5 minutes spent navigating the halls of Penn Station and trying to duck into the Herald Square subway via the Manhattan Mall have somehow a daily Sisyphean torture.
But all is not lost. Like many who make a pact with the Devil to live in this beautiful hellhole of a city, I look inward and listen for coping mechanisms. Having tried all the typical New Age tactic and strategies–meditation, mindfulnexx, positive thinking, and the rest–I’ve made strides. Some days, I feel so connected to my fellow humans that I want to smile and greet every single one of them while they tell me their life story…to link hands in an endless circle while we dance in celebration of the endless possibilities of the day ahead and th impossible beauty of life in our little metropolis. I pause Spotify and look around the morning A train with empathy and a yearning for communion…I love you, sweaty fellow office schlub picking your nose…I love you, loud skateboarding teenagers propped up against the guy with the bike blocking the doors…I love you, mentally deranged shirtless guy with 5 granny carts full of foraged cans and bottles for recycling who insists on holding up the whole rush-hour train while he shoves the last cart through the last-train car doors and yells at the rest of us to get the hell out the way…wait a second–are you ME in five years? Oh, who am I kidding, I’ll hate you guys later today on my way home. But I might love you again tomorrow.
Maybe I should just walk to work?…