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It was a dark and stormy night

January 15, 2015

Much of being a New Yorker means pretending that half of the people you see every day don’t really exist.  It’s not narcissism or rudeness, although that’s what it often looks like from the outside.  It’s just survival.  If you actually had to process every person who walks through your life every day, you might lose it.  For a lot of people, it means imagining rules for yourself to get where you need to go.  Walk this way not that way, tune out the noise with headphones, look at the ground, don’t ever make eye contact, lose yourself in a book.  It can help. But the problem with this approach is that after a while, you start to think other people should be following the rules too and you get annoyed or even downright irate when they don’t. But how could they know what the rules are?  Well, except for the rule about walking on the right hand side of the sidewalk.  Everybody should follow that rule, New Yorkers.  It would make all of our lives better.

I am not by nature a dogmatic rule follower (I think I can hear my mother snickering right now).  It’s both my downfall and my saving grace.  So I’m not quite sure how I came to be one of these people who will choose the rule (walk on the right) over the practical solution (step left to avoid someone who is walking toward you).  But I find myself playing chicken on the sidewalk more and more. I am not proud of myself.I’m not exactly sure why I’m telling you this story except to say that trying to figure out how to walk through the streets of New York without going crazy takes up a lot of my mental space. Which is why, at the age of 47, I tend to pretend I’m staring in a movie of my own devising while I do it.  Jim White for the walk to the subway and a Southern Gothic pic; The Pixies or Fatboy Slim for an end-of-the-world action pic on the walk to my office.  Home is easier.  When it’s dark, Manhattan is film noir and anything moody will do. I pass a long string of neon-lit Korean karaoke bars on my way to the train. Even my 19th century Brooklyn neighborhood is noired after dark, porch lights striping the sidewalks through wrought-iron.  Puddled streets coldly reflecting lingering Christmas lights.  A car horn.  A siren.  A door slam. A bell.  And if you’re lucky, a foghorn echoing up from the river.

Coping mechanisms have served me well this week.  Nothing too terrible.  A little under the weather.  A little drama at the office.  The nerves of waiting for the imminent results of high school applications. Sometimes it’s just easier to declare and defend your boundaries or just pretend you’re someone else for a while. What about you?  How do you cope with the things that make you lose your cool?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Typing Chimp permalink
    January 16, 2015 7:37 am

    I use the movie ruse a lot – it’s just the right level of disconnect to stressful situations, and makes the mundane more tolerable, especially with a soundtrack of one’s choosing. There are a lot of thing I miss about living in a sprawling urban environment, but people is not one of them.

  2. eleanorio permalink
    January 16, 2015 10:37 am

    I had urban living down pat: navigating crowded streets, subway and elevator etiquette; but as I move to more and more rural situations, I find that I don’t miss the impersonal nature of the city. I like being able to make eye contact with strangers, smile and say good morning. The one thing I dread most about my husband’s looming retirement is leaving this town and moving to a bigger centre. I don’t want to give up my small town ways.

  3. January 16, 2015 11:19 am

    Funny — I live in small city, but it’s urban enough that I can walk nearly everywhere, which I like. But I also like living far from everyone out in the country. Irreconcilable.

  4. the other theo permalink
    January 16, 2015 3:53 pm

    I try to exercise. Burn the stress away. Helps keep me more centered.

  5. January 16, 2015 4:34 pm

    Yoga. Sometimes if I’m really frustrated with life I try to keep a smile on my face as if I’d just heard a private joke. People looking at me smile and it improves my day. I’d fail NY.

  6. freshhell permalink
    January 17, 2015 8:29 am

    I do that too! The rules, the movie I’m in starring ME! 🙂

  7. January 17, 2015 11:21 am

    It’s funny, Eleanor, but this city is both more and less impersonal than the suburb we left to move here. I met my neighbors much more quickly here — when you share a building, that happens. I know most of the people who grow, make and sell my food, wash my clothes, sell my books, etc., because of a year-round farmer’s market and the small neighborhood shops we have in lieu of big impersonal chain stores. I learned last night that the small and beautifully curated travel bookstore — antique books and maps, mostly — across the street from my office is closing (story here: and I’m truly sad because the people who ran it were lovely. I will miss going in there on my lunch hour. Maybe it’s that there are a few too many opportunities for the person that require us to take refuge in the impersonal. There are just a lot of persons here.

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