There is nothing I can say about New York City that hasn’t been said a million times. There is no story I can tell of this place that hasn’t been told and retold by countless others. But every iteration, every telling of these stories builds upon the words and thoughts of every other. They cannot exist independently from the aggregate whole.
As the art of Oliver Laric reminded me today, in the telling and retelling of such stories, people reveal not so much about actual events as about themselves. Every truth reinforces a repetitive illusion; every lie creates an alternate universe in which that lie is true. This endless intertwining of stories — and of selves — is how I become overwhelmed in a place such as New York City. Adrift in a sea of humanity.
But I do not shy away from being so lost. I embrace it. I fling myself headlong into the teeming masses, the human machinery of urban existence.
I am standing in the middle of the sidewalk somewhere in midtown, letting the throngs of people rush past me. The sound of a hundred thousand footsteps takes on its own rhythm amid the cacophony of cars, voices, ringing phones and construction noise, echoing off the glass-steel-concrete walls of this urban canyon. I am immobile, unyielding, even when someone jostles me without apology. I am the still point in this relentlessly turning world of consumer culture, this gilded facade of the American dream.
I begin to walk downtown. I look into the eyes of every person I pass. I do not care that this is not proper New York etiquette. Some people look back at me, but most do not. Their gazes range from irritated to confused, expectant to profoundly sad.
I intentionally ride the subway at rush hour, just to be so undeniably engulfed by the masses. I, like everyone around me, fix my gaze at some indeterminate and unobtrusive point in the middle distance. It occurs to me that this is the NYC equivalent of the Thousand-Yard Stare, and I smile at the absurdity of this. The man standing next to me, with wispy facial hair and a Yankees shirt, smiles at me smiling. On his forearm there is a huge tattoo of solid black ink, rough around the edges and blotchy in the middle. I wonder what he was trying to cover up. An ex-girlfriend’s name? Some credo from his past, now considered a previous and unwanted life? Regret, a physical past redacted. No erasure, only more ink to obscure something previously meaningful. He makes no effort to hide the black patch and it challenges me from its position gripping the subway pole not six inches from my face. What if we could all redact our pasts so completely? Which events, which previously meaningful sentiments would fall victim to our own black ink?
Everyone here is on display. In such close proximity, in quarters so cramped we directly breathe one another’s exhalations, can there be any expectation of privacy? I begin to understand the Gary Winogrands of the world; I too almost feel entitled to re-appropriate this display, to expose private moments hiding in public space. But I refrain. After all, I am not Gary Winogrand. I am just a visitor in this alien place.
Perhaps more than any other aspect of New York, I am taken with the sheer relentlessness of it. The pulsing juggernaut heart of the city is visibly manifest in every inhabitant, and their resigned compliance is palpable. Human cogs in a massive machine. Walk. Sit. Talk. Walk. Climb stairs. Not too fast. Not too slow. Eat. Breathe. Cough. Sigh. Yell. Laugh. Walk again. Elevator. Office. Desk. Phone. Elevator. Walk. Subway. Thousand-Yard Stare. Walk. Walk. Walk…
I cannot be sure if this experience is dehumanizing or intensely humanizing. After all, cities like New York might be the truest expression of human industry, efficiency and ambition, as well as a remarkable example of our social nature and adaptability as a species. Somehow this is comforting. Somehow this makes it not as overwhelming, not as unnatural.
On this visit, I have come to terms with my love/hate affair with massive urban spaces. I am not a city dweller by nature, and the thought of residing in New York is terrifying. Similarly, the small-mindedness of much of rural America is equally repugnant (and equally fascinating). My heart lies somewhere in the grey place between urban anonymity and small-town Americana. Granted, we can find wonderful pockets of joy in almost any environment (after all, life is what we make of it), but my heart of hearts probably resides permanently in the wild places of this world. In the solitude of a long, quiet trail through the woods and a campfire at night.
So why do I subject myself to this rather stressful brand of “vacation”? The answer is multiform:
1. I am endlessly fascinated by people, and NYC is one of the best places to observe people in unrivaled quantity and diversity. In a single city block you can hear ten or more different languages being spoken, and see a mind-boggling array of personalities and lifestyles. That in itself is pretty amazing.
2. The food and art are both really incredible, and I do love both of these things. I spend most of my time in NYC (and other large cities) eating and looking at art. Seriously.
3. Reality check time. It’s so easy, living in an smallish city, to fall prey to the fallacy that we, as individuals, matter in some larger sense. But being immersed in such a populous area reminds me that I am but a nameless face, another body on this earth that will pass into obscurity along with all the other nameless human bodies. This might seem depressing, and in some ways it is. But I actually draw a lot of comfort from anonymity. It takes some of the pressure off, I guess. All we have is here and now, and the only things we can be expected to do are live well, be kind, and be happy. That’s all there really is.
4. There is a sort of poetry in all this ugliness. As artist Claes Oldenburg said, “Dirt has depth and beauty.” Somehow, all the noise has rhythm, and the stench has its own perfume. The city is a living creature of its own, breathing and roaring and growing and sighing under the weight of its charges. It makes no apologies for its hardness, for its prickly demeanor; the city revels in chaos and commotion. Like a fortress both powerful and vulnerable, the city is a churning contradiction, an unapologetic paradox. There is an inspiring beauty in this that is as eloquent as it is tragic, as abrasive as it is embracing. You are folded into the city without consent, lost amid its layers and labyrinths, twisting and roiling in the relentless undulations of human activity.
The city will change you, even if only briefly. And you, like everyone else here, have no choice but to acquiesce.