I was swept into a wave of bodies, all of us having just alighted from the train below ground and together marching up that stairway to daylight, ending on ground level. So many strangers, so physically close, jam-packed on a little stairway. But that cram was the perfect place to remember the beauty of being one single individual in a million—or, more specifically, one of the 26,000 stuffed into each square mile of Manhattan (and really more including commuters). No one was watching, no one was measuring, and we were all just going to our destinations, lost in our own heads filled with thoughts, agendas and memories. It was private. In the midst of crowds, I was totally on my own.
Apparently, finding joy in such a totally-alone moment is something I have in common with many of my friends here, both newcomers and natives to New York. I was surprised to discover this similarity so fast among people in such different circles. Then again, I have noticed over the years that as different as they are from each other, one standout similarity among my friends is their ability to feel quite at home without company. I had another moment a few weeks ago, writing at a busy cafe on a Saturday afternoon with a black coffee to my right and no one in the chair in front of me, relishing that hour or two of history that no one but me knew was mine. My friends could relate: one of them loves going to chill bars after work to get lost in a book with a beer or glass of wine, another adores the sense of complete independence for the first time in her life despite sometimes missing her family in Mexico. The irony is how these people who genuinely enjoy time alone seem best suited to enjoy genuine time with each other. I understand that this isn’t convenient for all kinds of people, though. As one of my roommates and I discovered, we were both accused by friends in adolescence of not always wanting to hang out, i.e., being frustratingly antisocial for social people, or social for antisocial people, or Ugh, whichever it was.
We’ve been giving partial credit to New York for embracing our seeming social contradictions with open arms; we’ve been lauding the simultaneous privacy and publicness. Anyone can look crazy on the subway, being themselves, doing whatever it is that they do, and it’s all so unexpected and shocking, and fine. It belongs to the moment: they can do that. There’s so much attention-grabbing difference in your face all day, from the older woman rocking out to salsa on her headphones on the subway this morning to the man in the leopard print cape stalking through Union Square with a boombox on his shoulder to the woman crying on the street who may just want to cry it out right there without “sharing” the trauma back story. The magic is in meeting those people who get your weirdo quirks for dinner later, when everyone lays out for dissection whatever crazy day they had or whatever riveting book they missed their subway stops for (Gah, so late). The communal table grows all the richer for it. There’s something to be said about how many connections are forged when individuals are actually comfortable being alone when they meet someone new. I’ve seen this to be gloriously true in many places: at the gym, at church, in class, across countries. Far from “Serendipity,” I think that’s part of life.
It’s unabashedly oh-hail-the-United-States-of-America of me to say this right now, but here we go: the people in my life here remind me that part of what comprises super supportive communities are secure individuals, cool with the fact that unique individuals are what they are. From what I’ve seen so far, differences between us become problematic when we try to prove that our differences are better, maybe because of personal insecurity or uncertainty. Difference becomes dissension when it’s imposed.
So I gravitate toward people who seem oblivious to constant social interaction or proving their popularity. This may have started in middle school, I think when I became conscious of, and repelled by, my own desperation for social validation. This itself is a social bias that I have to aware of before offending or avoiding certain people. Regardless, I’ve noticed that most of the people whose input and insight I seek out so intuitively are also people who can be overheard saying, “Aw, thanks, but I have some other things planned on my own today.” Well, something like that. And it’s oddly familiar to hear it said by someone else and I’m comforted by it. I’m happy and comforted to know that my nearest and dearest have a kaleidoscope of interests, circles I may not know, and a freedom from modern life’s urgency to tell all, all at once, all the time, including to me. It’s also why I love our rendezvous and tete-a-tete so much. With respect for the fact that we all lead com-puh-letely different, separate lives, it’s wonderful that we would still choose to meet at this or that time of our own volition, no strings attached.
As a last note, the sense of being in company that you genuinely trust is all the more precious in an individualizing place like New York, where, as in London, the overall industriousness and reality of costliness exaggerate how individually occupied people are. “Transient” is another word I’ve heard dozens of times. Friends who were in New York before me warned me with their words and experiences how lonely the city can feel. I felt for them then, but understand it more now: Surely the places that highlight one’s independence and privacy can in turn deepen the feelings of loneliness and isolation for others. It’s possible I will feel those things in the coming months or years ahead. Who knows? Change in this world is constant.
So far, it’s been surprising and wonderful to cross paths with people who are as fond of spending days on their own as much as they are fond of having randomly themed evenings (French night, anyone?) like I do. Yes, there is much serendipity involved in finding one’s fellow weirdos sooner rather than later.
For Further Reading:
July 13, 2016: “An Ode to Alone Time,” A Cup of Jo Blog:
“As an introvert, when I moved to New York City, I had the numbers stacked against me — 8,550,404:1. Would I ever be able to find alone time?”
July 29, 2015: “How to Spend Time Alone,” New York Magazine:
“But being alone when surrounded by so many others holds a different appeal from being alone in a cabin in the woods. It’s less about being a hermit and more about being a chameleon. It also breeds a different sort of anxiety…
Being alone here is a state of mind, a perpetual choice, and an occasional imposition, a burden, and a gift—and sometimes the very best way to meet a fellow stranger.”