The frantic horn of a firetruck ricocheted off the old brick tenements of Prince Street. Pedestrians leapt for the sidewalk. A black SUV bounced its right front tire over the curb in an attempt to clear a path. I glanced at my mom, a petit middle-aged woman with wild brown hair, in the middle of the chaos. The tips of her index fingers were tinged white as she pressed her ears shut. The crease between her eyes was deep.
As the firetruck swung out of sight onto the Bowery, her tension faded away.
“It’s SO loud here!” she lamented.
Since she arrived in the city to visit me two days prior, that sentence frequently found its way into our conversations.
Before reaching the Bowery, we ducked into a small Mexican restaurant for lunch, sliding into a booth with faded red cushions near the front of the narrow dining room. Songs sung softly in Spanish drifted from speakers set near the ceiling. Rows of amber beers glistened in a cooler behind the bar. Halloween decorations of black paper skeletons and bats hung from the light fixtures swung gently in the occasional breeze that found its way through the open door. We shared the huevos rancheros.
“What do you think?” I asked after swallowing a mouthful of the obscure Mexican beer we ordered.
She glanced the tines of her fork off the top of a cluster of black beans, “It’s pretty good! Definitely better than I expected.”
I nodded and reached into my over-sized black purse for my phone. My mom set down her fork.
“Where do you want to go tomorrow?”
I stopped rummaging through my purse.
“I can’t do lunch tomorrow. It’s Monday. I work all afternoon,” I said.
She leaned back away from the table and fixed her gaze on something in the distance.
“You’ll have to go somewhere without me,” I said as I continued my search, “We’re in New York City. You’ll definitely find something. If it’s good, we’ll go together before you leave.”
Suddenly, a motorcycle sped in front of the restaurant. I saw my mom cringe as the rider obnoxiously revved the engine.
“Don’t say it,” I said as I retrieved my phone from the depths of my purse.
She sighed and leaned in to pick up her fork.
“How can you stand it here?” she asked as she picked around the plate for a perfectly proportioned bite, “It’s too loud, too gritty, and full of crazy people. There’s garbage and construction everywhere. I don’t know. None of that bothered me as much when I was your age. Maybe I’m just getting old.”
I looked up from my phone and met her gaze.
“In all honesty, it doesn’t make any sense for you to be here. You’ve always valued solitude and silence,” she said, “Yet, here you are in one of the loudest and crowded places on earth.”
I let a half-hearted chuckle escape my lips, “Yeah.”
I soon slipped away into my own thoughts. Like the answer to any paradox, it was complicated.
It would’ve been easy to say that I couldn’t stand it. Three years of living here hadn’t changed anything. I still carried a Minnesota driver’s license. I still lived in a dorm populated with the same wooden university-issued furniture. I still fled the city as soon as there was no obligation for me to stay. Like the other commuters pressed up against each other in the subway, I kept the outside world firmly clamped off with a pair of headphones. The streets were simply possible routes to the next destination. They weren’t my streets. I’m not from here, so I would be a hypocrite if I claimed that I was.
There were days when I was firmly convinced Manhattan was personally out to get me, and didn’t hesitate to use its entire arsenal of weapons to ruin my day; slow walkers, people doing sidewalk surveys, subway delays, lines, unexpected downpours, and stepping in god-knows-what. There were days when I “had it up to here” and days when I just wanted to stand in one of the designated “screaming spots” in Union Square and yell until my throat was raw. The pandemonium was inescapable, even leaking under my door and through my thin windowpane.
It was the easy answer, but a half-truth is worth nothing.
For every unexpected downpour I was caught in, there was an hour of joy as I watched the sky grow grey through the gaps in my blinds. For every crowd that suffocated me, there was the discovery of a curiously empty street.
Maybe the answer became more complicated when I realized that a metropolis of over eight million people could feel inexplicably small. Maybe it happened during a small concert in Brooklyn. Like Walt Whitman and his fellow commuters on the Brooklyn ferry, I knew them. I belonged with them. I like to think they knew me too.
Sometimes, I throw my head back to the straining point and follow the walls of the steel and glass canyon, window by window, to their summits. Each pane frames a life I know nothing about, and probably never will. It occurs to me that I am nothing but a passing face to them. I wonder if they wonder about me as much as I wonder about them. Maybe that is the curse of this city; doomed to feel like we are the only ones on the outside looking in. Yet, if that is true, then we were all just playing a trick on ourselves.
I let my gaze fell upon those rushing by me, each one trapped in their own little enigma. I know that such shells are fragile, perhaps breakable by a single word. Yet, in our mutual confusion, they seem impenetrable. They allow us to see out, but never let others see in. I never feel so invisible as I do in that sea of one-way mirrors. However, it isn’t the kind of invisibility that leaves you feeling hollow, but the kind that clears the vision rather than obscures it.
Maybe I can stand it when I turn off the lights, open my blinds, watch lightening splinter across the Manhattan sky, and listen to the thunder compete with the sirens. For once, the city, so deeply woven into our minds, is at the mercy of another force.
My train of thought flew off the rails. Suddenly, I was back in the restaurant sitting before a plate of half-eaten huevos rancheros, and staring at a phone screen that had long since gone black. Every good and every bad moment slipped back into the dusty corners of my mind.
“Did I lose you there?” my mom asked. The air seemed heavier around her words.
I straightened up and dropped my phone back into my purse.
“I was just thinking.”
My mom sighed, knowing from experience that she wasn’t going to get any more out of me. We both dove back into our eggs until we came up for air to get the check.
“I was thinking about my answer to your question,” I said.
My mom looked up from the bill. The movement caused her tortoise shell-patterned reading glasses to slide slightly down her nose.
“About why I can stand it here,” I explained.
She pushed her glasses back up to the bridge of her nose.
“Really? What’s your answer?” she asked.
I remembered something that an unknown singer said at the end of her show, on that night in Brooklyn where everything felt small. Something about how living in this city is like living in the entire world.
“Because I’m a New Yorker.”