Of Humans Of New York and Not Being Alone

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I think I’ve known it for some weeks now. Known it in the way that my fingertips absently type f-a-c-e-b-o-o-k-.-.c-o-m-/-h-u-m-a-n-s-o-f-n-e-w-y-o-r-k or some abbreviation of that, as whatever souless web browser that I’m viewing this page on recognizes what I’m up to and attempts to read my mental state, or at least engage the patterns of my fingertips. And then, pressing the enter key, landing on the page, and clicking on this picture of Rosy-Cheeked Toddler Clutching Big Brother’s Hand and Fashion Designer on the Block and Jeeze, that New Mother Was So Profound and Hony, You Know That That Answer You Elicited Right There Really Touched Me. I Mean, If I Could Have, I Would Liked It, Like 14,555 Other People Already Have.

(All of this. All happening. In My Town.)

Click. Next Photo. Read Words. Let out “Hmmm.” Maybe a “Delightful.” Or “Wow.” Skim Comments. Repeat.

The Masses Roar: “I love the Hony Community. Everyone else on the Internet exchanges barbs like they’re swapping presents on Christmas Day. But this little corner of the blogosphere’s different.”

“Whoa, so this Guy in a Suit that is marching down Main Street like he owns the world—his sister suffered from leukemia. It just goes to show you that you really don’t know anyone.”

In response to Profound Words of a Stranger, “HONY, how do you do it all the time?”

Meanwhile, I feel equal parts glowing and connected–all ephemeral. This is my city and here are its people and I do everyday life with them. But life imitates art. My vision narrowly concentrates its resources to a screen, oblivious to the reality that endures outside of its confines. Within that peripheral space, stands the point that I can only make out once I knock the screen from my eye level.

I live in New York City. The people that he photographs, I ignore on the train. The people he photographs, our shoulders slam on sidewalks. The people he photographs, I don’t visit their neighborhoods. The people he photographs, I see them only as hurdles to maneuver around on my Citi Bike. The people he photographs, I refuse to engage with as alive. 

(Sometimes I viscerally hate technology. Today is one of those days.)

But click through these photographs as I allegedly write cover letters in this northeast reading chamber at the Steven L. Schwartzman Building. I mean, I can do that, and do that I will.

Faces. Attire. Quotes. Consume. Chew. Next Bite. Scrape the edges of bowl.

If you’re giving me a page view, first thanks. Second, you’re probably shaking your head slowly because maybe you were my accomplice in begging straphangers and sidewalk sitters and the sea of pedestrians to feast on pastries or salad or snickers or blankets and please, won’t you partake in our excess. Maybe, you think you’ve heard those stories of how I made my first friend because of a pervert in Astoria Park, another friend who was shrieking to her ex-boyfriend on the Rockaway bus ride home, another friend on the 11:30pm F train last Saturday, and another at a lecture I spontaneously attended. Maybe, you believe that I don’t feast on people for my Internet Prix Fixe. Maybe you don’t know me.

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If I’m weepy this indecisive Tuesday, I’m shoving the blame on Jonathan Safran Foer who offered his thesis of technology’s harmartia after refusing to comfort a sobbing teenager whom he only knew because she was sobbing on a bench and her cries forced him to confront the reality outside the screen.

He’s referring to technology as this “diminished substitute” for incarnate interaction.

Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

THE problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.

Point taken Mr. Foer. I don’t  even so much as comment on Hony. I haven’t logged in to Facebook since practically a year ago.

I don’t remember the last time I built emotional rapport with strangers so swiftly as to figuratively wipe tears away. And what a pitiful life this will be if my nasty, brutish and short never tries to ameliorate those traits in someone else’s. But instead, it’s the 21st Century! I can choose to vicariously live this bravery out through Brandon Stanton.

Let me bring in Mr. Foer again, who can gracefully cut my heart again.

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.

We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.

That is it. It is all ending, even now while it is beginning and I am typing this blog, a farcical way to think that I might be contributing to healing but no it is not, because potentially these words I wrote were poignant and tender and what I want to do in the world will take more chutzpah than scribbling disappointed and jaded thoughts on a fickle Tuesday morning.

I’m going to die. I’m already dying. In what ways today will I serve or undermine the legacy that I wish to leave?

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Beauty. Intelligence. Society.

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Only occasionally do I hunch over in front of a tooth-paste lined mirror and attempt to dexterously line my eyelashes with mascara and polish my lips with red lipstick. Most often, within four hours the mascara has started to smear around the bags of my eyes. Within 30 minutes, red lipstick has magically appeared on my teeth, the top of my wrist (from when I tried to wipe it away from the edges of my mouth) and if I’m unlucky, onto the dress I’m wearing, because that wrist has deposited its excess onto my torso.

There’s a piece of me that aspires to be beautiful; to stride instead of shuffle onto subway cars, having mastered the art of the heel, all my belongings fitting perfectly under the zipper of my designer handbag, and practically pose there, every hair in place, the chunky gold watch complimenting my earrings perfectly, and the whole car blinking as if the Cover Girl spontaneously materialized.

Yes, there is a piece of me.

But in many ways, I revel in defying, or perhaps complicating, society’s irrepressible ingredients of What It Takes To Be Beautiful. Truth be told, part of me accepts that I’ve already been disqualified. My face is far too blotchy; my chest looks like it never left girlhood. I have little interest in ostentatiously caving to The Man by indulging in plastic surgery, though I wish I were slightly more disciplined about applying SPF 25 before I jetted out each morning.

Still, the part of me that delights in mucking up the rules also insists on a four-dresses-per-week minimum, all seasons of the year (and of course I bike and climb trees in them shamelessly.) In defiance I insist on wearing ballet flats and dressy flat sandals as I charge around New York. (Heels would only inhibit my ambition.) No I don’t usually wear makeup and no I don’t use any electronics on my hair — but I do braid, twist, and pin all or parts of it a myriad of times every hour.

Once in a while – or more than that – I strut around New York like I’m the only liberated woman alive. Ironically this seems most likely to occur when my shoulders burn under the weight of my color-clashing green backpack that I’m only toting because what else would carry my laptop and let me bike around the city? What am I, in grade school?

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As a little girl, I lived a solid twenty minute walk away from the public library. My mom signed us all up for library cards the day that we turned five — shamelessly acknowledging her rationale as being able to check out the maximum number of materials at any given time. As she trudged out to the car, her hands clutching bulging canvas bags replete with literature, I instinctively became gleeful about immersing myself in the American Revolution, Roman Republic and Montana plains once we got home. My obsession with stories and my home school upbringing meant that when I attended private high school, I was doomed. I was a nerd and worshiped at the feet of learning.

Not much has changed today. I feed my daily insatiable starvation for content by making a morning ritual of opening up dozens of tabs to dozens of articles, op-eds, and blogs and then commence digesting. For several hours. But although in grade school, I read solely for the story, I realized earlier this week just how important it is for me to read what everyone else is reading. Let me rephrase: to read what other brainy, intellect wonks summarize and blurb about all over the internet.

And I do this shamelessly. Indeed, I walk into any bookstore and immediately head towards greeting tables that display all the flashy and trendy graphics of the latest books making the New York Times, NPR and Atlantic rounds, turn the books over, skim the back and then, without fail, remark that “This is something I need to read. I’ve heard it’s so good.” If I do fail at making said remark, I whip out my slider phone and email the title and author to myself as a reminder to put the book on hold the next time I have internet access.

On Twitter, beyond the twenty-or-so baseball related personalities that perennially clog my feed, I follow city planning nerds, Politico and Bloomberg reporters and urbanist-biased folks whose article suggestions induce all sorts of self-enforcing biases. And I lick my plate clean.

What a conundrum this is! For as much as I pride myself in my liberation from cloyingly, suffocating appearance standards, it is with this same gusto that I embrace the elite standard of smarts, intelligence, and wisdom.Yes, there is a piece of me that wants to be that beautiful girl on the subway. But every day that I find myself devouring Nate Silver’s statistical analysis or the latest issue of the “Economist” while leaning against a train pole, I applaud myself much harder for my Sense Of The World and Well-Roundedness.

And here’s the icing on the cake:. Although I consider myself someone who longs for connection with all types of people, the type of media that I consume either brings me in closer or further contact with particular subgroups. There is that type of person that watches Mad Men. There is that type of person that watches Girls. There is that type of person that watches Game of Thrones.

And then there are the masses, who consume reality sleaze, late-night try-to-be-funny comedy acts, vampire literature, urban novels, and blockbuster movies — all the media that I often pretend does not exist. Ridiculously, I pick a cyber-culture where this media  often is not even acknowledged, and yet I hope that I can still connect with all types of people.

I don’t want to assert that without media, no human connection exists. I’m just saying that I’ve let myself be made in the brainiac image of the people I try to please, the people that I acknowledge, the people that I aspire to be, and shouldn’t be so silly as to think that I’m above society’s cookie cutter imprints.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that you may know what is good, and acceptable and the perfect will of God.” #ThanksPaul #NowWhat