I walk from my small apartment on the first floor of an old house and down two steep blocks to the marina. The early morning light is already casting a glow across the Hudson River. I look toward where I am going—to the towering island city rising out of the water with the sun.
I have chosen to live on the New Jersey side of the river even though I work in Manhattan. Sizes are more manageable here. Less cars. Less noise. Shorter buildings that don’t compete for stature. Houses that are surrounded by trees that reach toward an open sky.
And less people.
It’s not that I am against people. Rather, it is that I am for them, and it’s the interactions with hundreds of people each day that I have to learn to manage. I look into all those faces, but they are not a sea. To me they are individuals. Some of them I would like to get to know, others I am not drawn to. But with all of them, I have a hard time ignoring the relational part of me.
In Manhattan I recently met a woman who was struggling to fit her stroller through a Starbucks door. As I reached to help her, I commented on her new baby. “Yes,” the women said, “he’s only 17 days old.” I asked her how she was adjusting, and her tired eyes gave me the answer. As we waited for our orders, we chatted about newborns and the feeling of being in long, sleep-deprived tunnels when nursing little ones. But then our drinks came up, and we parted. Again, I was almost stunned by the fact that I would never see this women again. This one moment, this small interaction, a connection between two mothers—that spark of energy that had passed between us—that was all we had. A start and finish of a relationship in under 5 minutes. Surreal.
A friend who has lived in Manhattan for years told me that I am going to have to learn to ignore much of the New York City stimuli in order to survive it. “I understand you wanting to make connections with people, Sara,” she said to me, “but you’ll wear yourself out if you try to do that with everyone you meet here.” And so I have adopted the big city custom of wearing headphones and listening to music on my short commute across the river. I can still smile at people, and I am finding that this in itself is a satisfying connection. Before I began to work in New York, I didn’t understand why so many people stayed in their own worlds, hiding behind their smartphones. But now I am finding it is a matter of size—making the huge manageable—cutting out the excess energy of the city.
“Show me your ‘don’t bother me’ face,” I said to my Manhattan friend one day. She is also relational by nature, but she has to occasionally put on a leave-me-alone expression in order to stay in control while navigating the city. I was almost made afraid myself when she transformed her welcoming smile into an unapproachable scowl. Then I told her I wished she had taught me some of these maneuvers before I had tried to make friends with the ferryman.
In the first few days of my ferry commute, the writer in me had already fictionalized the life of this man. If I had left the details inside my head, all would have been well. But no. In order to imagine his life better, I thought I should ask the ferryman what country he was originally from. “I was in the Cuban navy,” he said with a too-welcoming smile. “But then I was able to defect here to New York. And now I am going to stop being just an attendant. I am practicing for my boat pilot’s license.” “You’re living the American dream,” I said to him. “Yes,” he replied. And then he looked at me hungrily. “Yes, I am.”
That next day after the ferryman loaded all the passengers, he sat down close to me. Very close to me. Personal space in the city, or lack of it, is something I am also adjusting to. Once on a subway, all of us strangers were already so crammed in, standing front to back, that none of us could turn sideways. “Push in!” said a man still outside the door. We pushed, and he was in. Bodies pressed against bodies. But minds kept at a distance.
On the ferry, with the Cuban attendant sitting next to me, I was pretty sure he was not trying reach my mind, either, but he certainly liked the proximity of my body. “Your blue eyes are so beautiful,” he said. “And your legs?” He put his tongue out just enough to lick his lips. “Your legs make my mouth water.”
It seems I need to learn from many sources how to navigate New York City. When I told my 20 year old daughter, Rachel, about the ferryman’s advances, she admonished, “Mom, put on your headphones. Have your iPad open, reading. And speaking of open, don’t be so open. Don’t look the guy in the eyes. When you sit on the ferry, turn your legs and your body into a closed stance toward the window.” I laughed with her, enjoying the fact that she practices city survival skills herself while also being willing to teach me her tips.
On this day, though, as I walk out of my apartment and down the hill, with the glare so strong on the water that I slip my sunglasses over my eyes, I am relieved that my self-made problem with the ferryman is over. A new attendant is now working the Edgewater to Midtown route. I am hoping the Cuban did earn his own boat and that he will still chase his American dream—a dream that, thankfully, now won’t include chasing me.
I step off the ferry and onto Manhattan—an island that is barely 23 square miles, where almost 4 million people live and work everyday. The high energy of the city and of its people peaks through me. Even though much of our human contact is non-relational, disconnected, it is still a vibrant force, flowing through us all.
But I am not disconnected at the college where I work in Midtown. Here I have other professors to engage, students to guide, friends to enjoy. And all the while, the vitality of the city is pulsing, pushing through all that I do.
And then? In the evening, on the water, when I am on the ferry that is churning across the river toward home, I feel it. What is it—this almost physical let-down, this sense of unnamed loss?
Back at my apartment, I shut the door. I am alone. Those of us who are single, or those who are in relationships where there is no real connection, come home from our work, close our doors, and find . . . . Silence. We have shut out the energy of the city. We have moved from tall buildings to small rooms. And we are alone.
I hang my sweater up on the rack and look into the mirror. Who is that? After seeing a thousand faces, I hardly recognize my own. The fury of the day, the bodies braced against each other—all that human energy—collides into the stillness. It is because of the contrast that aloneness threatens to suck me into a black hole of nightfall.
But is this real, or is it surreal?
In front of the mirror I tell myself that aloneness and loneliness are two different emotions. To be lonely is to long for someone who is not with me or for someone who never has been with me—to wish for connections that are not real. But to be alone is to be given opportunity. By shutting the door on that collective human energy, I can rest from over-stimulation. But more than that, in the silence, I can reconnect with who I am as a person, as an individual. I can choose to face myself—with all my fears and flaws—while also choosing to embrace myself, valuing my talents and triumphs.
In the night, in the stillness, in the large-brought-down-to-small, there is a smile in that mirror.
And I recognize it as my own.