Monday, August 16, 2010

Cucumbers and the East River: Or, A New York State of Silence

I remember once being inside this church in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty, at around 1pm on a Thursday, of all times. A friend and I went inside to check out the architecture and it was completely empty. Even in the daylight hours, the room was entirely gray. Textured concrete underfoot absorbed the shuffle of our feet as we just looked up into the building and heard nothing. Silence so thick you felt it on your arms, like you could possibly cut through it with a knife if you really wanted to.

Until recently, I had yet to experience so profound a silence, a silence you can somehow hear echoing around you as if you were caught in the middle of a parade of ambulances and had suddenly gone deaf. But I heard this brand of silence again the other night, here in New York, the very last place I expected to hear it.
My roommate was out of town for the weekend and I was sitting having a snack of sliced cucumbers in our living room. It was around seven o’clock in the evening. I sat down on the futon and started snacking and thinking about life. All of a sudden I heard the crunch of each bite of cucumber echoing in my ears, as if it was in surround sound or something equally ridiculous. It was only when I heard the green vegetable’s cool crunch that I realized how thick the silence in the apartment was, and as I kept crunching I felt that much more aware of it. The crunch tore through the apartment like a chainsaw and I realized how empty it was.

I heard on more than one occasion that New York can be such a lonely place, but I never really believed it until that moment. But I wasn’t lonely, per se; I was just especially aware of the fact that I was alone.
I wonder if these moments are the rare ones in New York, where there is always some kind of noise that is a part of what I will call “the New York Silence.” “The New York Silence” is the complete quietness of everyone inside the subway train while the outside shakes and rattles and bumps and thumps on the outside. It is this kind of subway silence where people find themselves able to read or even balance their checkbooks, but it’s really not silence in a true sense of the word at all. Even so, I find it quite beautiful and something so expressly New York. The noise gives me a feeling of safety, as if when you don’t hear anything is the time you should maybe begin to worry.

I experienced another kind of “New York Silence” this weekend when my friend EH came to visit me. After a rather raucous evening out, we woke up Sunday morning/afternoon and went for a walk along the East River, a body of water snuggled (nay, spooned) closely by FDR Drive and Queens (down by where we walked, anyway).

The gray-green water splashed and crashed on this semi-windy day. Bikers and runners and walkers like us made their way up or down the path by the river, which itself was sandwiched between FDR Drive and the river. A busy, highway-esque thoroughfare a la South Florida’s State Road 84, FDR Drive is no quiet place. When you sit down on a bench on this path by the East River, cars are whooshing and zooming almost literally behind your head as you stare over the serene, crashing waters which, anywhere else would be surrounded by silence. But in New York, you are always repeatedly sandwiched between noise and silence—it all depends what you’re willing to hear.

Tonight, after a rather lovely and inspiring conversation with MS over the most enormous slices of pizza I’ve ever seen in my entire life (Koronet Pizza in Morningside Heights—go. It’s delicious.), I’ve been enlightened of a way to live in New York. A dilemma New Yorkers face, MS says, is how to balance the 90,000,000+ things to do in the city with achieving their personal goals. It’s so easy to get distracted that we have to keep ourselves centered. Sometimes we have to seek out the silence, as difficult as it may seem. We have to crunch the cucumbers in an empty room, no matter how scary the prospect of doing so might be. Because of this, I would venture to say, we are not only growing into New Yorkers, but into adults.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Elyssa - remember me, Alissa, from our Yale summer days? I'm moving to New York next week and I just wanted to say I'm looking forward to reading your blog and insights as I too start to navigate a new city :)