NYC: Surrounded and Alone.

April 21st, 2010

IMG_3678This is a place where you can live completely within yourself. In the subway, grasping greasy handles, swaying too and fro as the train rocks. The gentle bumping with passengers, avoiding eye contact lest it seem intrusive. On the street, brushing by people. Outside the office, slipping by the smokers who congregate at the doorway.

I live this way at home, in Seattle, but there I have a family to come home to. In New York, it’s not uncommon to return to the apartment and find neither roommate home. I walk in to the shrill warning of the house alarm, flip on the kitchen light, lock the door, and settle in to whatever task I have. Cooking dinner. Lunch for tomorrow. Maybe personal work. All of it alone. But I can call home, where it’s three hours earlier, and tuck everyone in to bed.

Sometimes the anonymity amongst all these people is nice; I can float through the city, focusing on why I’m here with minimal distraction. After all, I’m only in the city for three months. I can observe and absorb, but don’t have to engage, as I prepare to take advantage of the second half of my stay here.

On 3 April, someone was stabbed in the subway. Lu and I saw the dozen or so cops, the blood all over the floor, the police tape. My subway station. The next night, a block away, someone else was shot.

At night, I watch the rats skitter through the park, or nose about the subway station, down between the rails and across the platform. Depending on the day, garbage is piled on the street. Mounds of it, awaiting pickup. I guess these old buildings don’t have storage for rolling garbage cans or dumpsters like Seattle.

There’s a tree near the apartment building, where all the car service people park. It reeks of urine. I guess that’s one of the compromises for having a car on-call, ready to drive you to the airport or wherever.

I was going to the climbing gym, Brooklyn Boulders which, after producing the workshop piece “Close to Home,” I realized is on the edge of a Superfund site. They are still building out the climbing space and it can be dangerously crowded at times, with people falling on each other. It is as if they’re so used to being around people they are no longer aware of them. I went for the peace of mind climbing can offer, but I’m a bit overwhelmed by the crowds.

It’s a similar thing on the subway or in the grocery store–at least, the ones I go to. People pile up outside the doors of the train, waiting to push in even before you get out. Navigating the platform, or in the aisles of the store, people often won’t even acknowledge you. They maintain their course, step in front of you, push their way toward the produce filled cooler. It’s as if I don’t even exist or, possibly, having this self-assured sense of entitlement is the only way to survive in a city of this size. I’m not sure, but I’ve found it in both the predominantly African-American PathMark grocery store, where stacks of meat, processed grains and gallons of soda fill the grocery carts, to the Trader Joe’s where mostly Caucasian yuppies, hipsters, and a few Jews pick over organics and other feel-good foods. My non-scientific cultural survey tells me it’s simply the city. I have to be careful I don’t throw broccoli at someone.

The other day it was raining heavily, so hard my pants were soaked. As I left the subway, on my way to the office, I walked by the umbrella sales guy. $5, his sign said, but ten steps later I watched with a smile as a woman’s umbrella blew inside out. I decided to suck it up.

That night, on my way back to the apartment, I was caught in another downpour; I stood beneath an awning talking with a grocery store owner as he closed up shop. My pants and boots were soaked, but beneath my jacket I was dry. Uncomfortable as I was, it was pretty funny. Maybe I should have bought that umbrella.

It is dirty, busy, crowded, and full of opportunity. There are priceless, odd, and definitely New York moments. The kind you hear about, the kind that make New Yorkers who they are.

Winter has turned to spring, and before I leave it will turn to summer. It seems it happened all of a sudden, but on that day I wasn’t alone. When Lu visited, she ushered in a change in season. We left the apartment in the morning to bare trees and returned to see them glowing, ghost-like, under the street lights. They were blooming, soft and white in the night.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

One Response to “NYC: Surrounded and Alone.”

  1. Tim McGuire says:

    Amy used to make fun of me for using an umbrella until we went to a slide show by hard-man climber, Steve Swenson and he said one of the most important pieces of gear he had with him in Pakistan on one of his climbing trekking expeditions was his umbrella… Ha!


US mobile: 1.206.409.3069
skype: timmatsui
e: tim(at)

PO Box 17941
Seattle, WA 98127 USA