I dropped a phrase in a previous post – “Isolation M.O.” – and I feel that it deserves some explication. When people ask me about New York, they often ask me about New Yorkers: “Is anybody nice? Is everybody rude?” Now, that’s just not fair. For one thing, hardly anybody I’ve met is actually from New York City, so they bring their cultural practices, including the way they relate to other people, from a myriad of hometowns. For another, people are people everywhere. They have problems here just like they have in Alaska, Hawaii, or Tennessee (although the kind of problems may change or be exacerbated here because of the setting; at the core and at their origin, they exist for the most part independent of the particularity of NYC). They also have personalities here just like they have elsewhere; there are exceptionally optimistic, cynical, kind, rude, etc. people everywhere. Let’s be frank: there are angels and douchebags wherever you go. You can’t escape.
Despite these considerations, there is something to be said for the character of a place. It’s one of the first things I noticed in New York, this incredible devotion to avoiding contact with others. It’s a stereotype based in remarkable truth that New Yorkers move quickly, especially as pedestrians, but there’s more to the description than just quick movements. In the (remarkably non-)bleak midwinter, the cold plays a role, too. Picture a woman on the sidewalk on her way to work. A huge scarf is wrapped around her neck and the lower half of her face, but in her haste, a few sections of hair escape and blow backwards in the wind that is created as much by her pace as by the chilly wind blowing down the avenue. She may have either beautifully precise eyeliner and heavy mascara or no makeup at all, but it is impossible to tell because she, like many New Yorkers, walks with eyes downcast, the crown of her head pointed forward as though navigating and parting the sea of pedestrians before her. Hands in pockets, she blows past you, and you’re not a little offended that, despite your efforts to walk quickly, too, she easily passes you, tall heels clicking.
I’m not a stranger to keeping a brisk(-ish) pace when I have a destination, and I’m certainly accustomed to developing a frustration and even anger for slow pedestrians, side-by-side pairs, and meanderers of all ages and backgrounds. I think this develops in part from my dad’s many hours spent in airports – he knows what gate he needs to get to (often in a hurry) and gets there – and in some part I may have adopted that; maybe it’s overcompensation for the short legs that make the long strides of the New York speed difficult to attain. Plus, I no longer have a car; I have to find another outlet for my road rage. However quickly I walk in this city (physically and metaphorically), I still feel like I’m being passed by.
The speed is almost less noticeable than the downwards glance. In some ways, it’s necessity: sidewalks are often uneven and cellar doors might be open. It’s also a way to avoid the whipping wind. But I think the key word there is “avoid,” averting the gaze so as not to catch another’s eyes. That would mean…communication. Acknowledgement. Opening the doors, even for a fleeting second, to contact.
This is not to say that in the South, people lock eyes with everyone they pass on the street, adopting a goofy grin and a cheesy wave as they go about their “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” day. The fact is that in the South, you drive nearly everywhere, so there’s not much opportunity to do the “pedestrian pass.” Even on a university campus, at least everybody there is united with the common purpose of attending class, and the downward glance is often mutual, if unspoken, acknowledgement of and respect for each other’s hangovers. No matter where I’ve been, I’ve often felt unsure of my glance. It’s akin to the problem we face when we don’t know what to do with our hands when we’re not holding anything and have no pockets. When approaching somebody walking in the opposite direction, do I nod? Give a smile? Say “Good morning, good afternoon, good evening and/or good night” (depending on how Truman Show I’m feeling that day)? I want to be friendly, but should I reserve that to people I meet in the coffee shop or the bar? Or even waiting for the same subway since there’s longer contact? Will smiling or nodding hello be awkward? Seriously, sometimes it causes this much anxiety.*
But I think this mannerism of either perpetually looking down or being willing to meet another’s glance is important and very indicative of not only individuals but of the personality of the place. A glance from a stranger or a quick hello can really mean more than anyone thinks – so much of our mood is managed in the details of life. I remember one night in high school. It was a typical angsty night; I had just gotten into some fight or another with my family and, equipped with the freedom of my trusty steed (a ’97 Grand Am named Geraldine), I had the means to escape, so I drove to Circuit City to spend a Christmas gift card. As I was walking into the store, I suppose my face must have revealed my sadness. A man passed me by, walking to his car, and simply said, “Smile. You’re ok.” It meant nothing – a fleeting moment and probably immediately forgotten by him, but such a tiny act of kindness really made me reconsider my own angst and instead feel grateful for the humanity and connection of which we are all capable.
I suppose I could just chalk that incident up to the character of the place I was in – that stereotypical (and often false) “Southern Hospitality” that we’re all so simultaneously fond and critical of. Just like I can chalk up the avoidance of contact to New York. Even after a week, I felt myself adopting the “isolation MO” like an accent: I walk quickly to my destination with my hands in my pockets, headphones in; on the subway, my book is out and my nose is buried in it, and if it’s possible to take a seat, I sit in a place with as much space as possible on both sides. I slouch down, meeting no one’s gaze; I even feel like I’m developing some back issues as a result. It’s not an affect that I particularly want or enjoy, but it’s remarkable how quickly I’ve adopted it, even unconsciously.
So, no, everyone. New Yorkers aren’t necessarily rude; they just don’t want to look at you.
*An amusing anxious glance anecdote: During my summers as a camp counselor in Black Mountain, NC, I used to go contra dancing with some of the staff on our night off. We went to Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. I won’t go into all the details of those nights (and there are plenty that I would be happy to describe), but suffice it to say that contra dancing is somewhat of a cross between square dancing and Celtic folk or traditional English country dancing (think of those scenes from Jane Austen film adaptations that you’ve seen). Every dancer has a partner to whom he or she returns after moving down the line and dancing with a stranger. On the turns, you place your foot in the middle to create an axle of sorts, and, if you’re following, you spin to the speed and strength of your partner. But just like your foot is planted in the middle, your face is quite stationary, and it’s almost a necessity to lock eyes on this stranger turning you in a dizzying circle. I always found this incredibly awkward; I was usually a sweaty mess in the non-conditioned, North Carolina gym full of dancers, hippies, and body odor, so I was conscious of not looking my best, but I wanted to appear exuberant (which I generally was), so I often smiled. But it was one of those smiles that you awkwardly hold when the photographer's 1-2-3 turns into 16-17-18.... Several of these partners remarked with a touch of derision, “Well, aren’t you a happy one.” After all, I was grinning my fakest grin as I locked eyes for that ten seconds of spinning. Whatever, dude. You’re wearing a Richard Simmons sweatband and a kilt.