Drowning out the rest of the universe with my headphones nestled in my ears, I watched the D train pull up, much to my dismay. I was waiting for the R train in Park Slope. It was nighttime, around 10 or 11. I tend to get jumpy taking the subway late at night anyway (blah blah blah insert how are you possibly a New Yorker comment here), but my blood pressure spiked when a woman to my left reached out and grabbed my forearm. My hand went into defense mode, almost ready to strike--I actually saw myself throwing her away from me, action-hero style-- until I noticed her eyes. Dark brown, they looked at me earnestly under a mountain of shiny, dark brown tresses. She actually needed help.
"Excuse me," she said, her words glossed with French. "Do you know if I can take this train to 34th Street?" I had to force my brain to function again, in a non-defensive mode. I pulled a headphone from one ear. I barely heard her and stared at her in disbelief. Did this woman just touch me? Could she take the train to 34th Street? I could hardly form words.
I was dumbfounded not only that someone had touched me on the subway, had grabbed me, but by my own response to it. I realized I had been in New York so long that any kind of physical contact was grounds for defense. And perhaps rightly so. We're told constantly to have our wits about us at all times, that we're not in Kansas anymore, and the best offense is a good defense. You never know who you're traveling with, who you're on a date with, who lives in your building. We're taught to keep as far away from strangers as possible, not just as New Yorkers but from birth, anywhere, with anyone.
But this woman at the subway station meant me no harm. Of course, there's no way for me to know that and it's best to have your guard up at all times, you say. True, but what interests me is the cultural exchange here. I can't tell you about this woman's culture--maybe this is completely normal where she is from? And I was about to karate chop her across the face just for asking for directions. Is that how New Yorkers got the tough reputation we have?
When we arrive in New York, we're bright and shiny, big eyes and bushy tails, ready to explore. The world is a beautiful place! We sparkle in ways we don't once we've lived here awhile, as GD says. You can always tell when someone is new. We smile and we shake our heads--soon you will learn, young grasshopper. It's not that the city beats you down, necessarily, but the lessons we learn here are magnified more I think than they are elsewhere. The motion, the force of the city changes the way you view the world. It makes us into those so-called "jaded New Yorkers." But this bright, shiny energy isn't crushed, it's made into a different, more knowledgeable kind of energy; it has more common sense, more street smarts, but it doesn't dull our fascination with the city and its immeasurable power. So the reputation is real, but how it got there isn't necessarily correct. We haven't done it all and seen it all; we're just still surprised at what we have seen.
For these reasons, it's important to understand oneself as one relates to New York. How do you feed off the energy that whirls around these five boroughs of ours? What does it do to you? Does it make you homesick? Does it make you dependent on others? Does it make you fall into yourself? Does it make your forget your responsibilities, or only focus on them? Everyone's experience of the city is different, everyone responds to the energy in different ways. For some, it's destructive. For some, it's uplifting. But there's absolutely no denying that it changes you and forces yourself to look at your life in ways you may not have if you lived somewhere else. You're in the arts? There's literally hundreds of thousands competing with you. How badly do you want it? Or you're in business. How willing are you to exchange your free time for your salary? Or you're looking for love. How willing are you to make time for someone else, to sit on the train for however long just to see their face when you could just as easily drive there in 20 minutes if only you had a car?
People who have lived in New York for a long time, longer than myself surely, have their guard up because they know the weight of these questions could break them at anytime. I don't want it enough, or I want more time, or I don't love you enough. Or I want it, I need less time, I love you. And in the seconds it takes for me to take my headphones out of my ears to answer this woman's question, all of this is running through my brain at once, causing the words to barely exit my mouth in time for her to catch the train. As much as I wanted to reprimand her, to say "DON'T TOUCH ME," to slap her hand away, I remembered the times when I felt homesick, alone, lost, confused, like I was floundering. Finally, I did get words out, but in not enough time for her to catch the D before the door closed. I told her she could take the R instead.