One of the most comforting aspects of living in a frenetic place like New York City is the ability to spy on the lives of others: a young mother calming her toddler on the subway, skater teens trying on bravado in the park, an old man dressed like a socialite. But there’s something else about the sea of people that is truly a pleasure. If I could invent an elaborate compound word, it would signify the delicious feeling of being alone amid a crowd — an independent actor swept up in the energy of the collective.
I am lucky that this feeling has been, in essence, my birthright as a New Yorker. Possibly the greatest privilege that comes from a childhood in Manhattan is the wealth of faces. Growing up, on the subway and on the street, I was given the gift of direct access to just about every permutation of humanity.
But a few years ago, it started to slip away from me. I didn’t realize it until one day when my phone died in a neighborhood in South Brooklyn that I didn’t know very well. I’d been running errands and, as was my habit, checking Instagram and text messages and email (probably compulsively?) in the moments in between. I’d also been navigating myself on Google Maps — living as that little blue dot, America’s true avatar, moving along the pale yellow grid on my phone’s screen. And then the phone died, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t know in which direction the subway entrance was, and I had to stop in one of those bodegas with the extensive wine cooler options and bulletproof glass and collection of dusty candy. I asked the cashier for directions and something about his teasing banter and his strong opinion about which street I should take stirred in me a kind of nostalgia that was a total surprise. It wasn’t the ratty cigarette posters or the stacks of Daily News. It was simply that I had put myself squarely in the moment, looked a stranger in the eyes and asked for advice.
It’s easy to complain, as I have, that the nature of this city is changing — that it is less a community and more a collecting place for people in lonely pursuit of individual ambitions. This thinking isn’t creative or new. But if I am, as I like to flatter myself, one of the youngest city residents who remembers a communal New York — a New York of microvillages — isn’t it my responsibility to help contribute to the feeling that we’re all neighbors?
After The Bodega Incident, I made a decision not to carry my phone on Sunday errands, which felt — after I’d noticed it — so insular. Instead, if I can’t find the street I want, I duck into a shop or ask someone passing by. Or I walk down a different street and discover a new coffee shop. And to my great delight, errands have become a time of total pleasure — a luxury of aloneness and action. It feels so much better to be engaged with the city, giving my neighbors their due: my full attention, even if they can’t tell the difference.
For me, putting down my phone was an act of citizenship, however small and personal — a way to be involved with the people who live around me, to really look at them and know them in the strange street intimacy of a city neighborhood, wherein you can recognize someone by his gait or his dog or his favorite pants, even if you’ll never know his name. Even if you just talk to ask which way the ATM is, even if you just nod in his direction.
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