alone, together

It has been a day of horizons and chasms.

7pm found me standing on the platform at the Smith/9th St. station, long after both the G that brought me there and then its F train partner pulled away toward South Brooklyn, their speed quickening into the night’s advance.

Smith/9th is the tallest subway station in New York City. It looms above the jagged industry of Red Hook and the trains that serve it explode out of the ground to find the sprawling emptiness  of factories at the surface. Before the summer I did not know it was the tallest, or even that it existed. I was unaware up until my eyes followed the diagonal of my companion’s arm thrust skyward to the point in the distance – where the station’s lumbering shape hung on the clouds impossibly. It looked wild, but I did not say that. We were walking; him and me, just walking, and he flippantly mentioned its place in the subway record books. The piece of information was unimpressive but I marked it anyway.

I find myself there frequently these days. I moved within close proximity of it, and by inevitability, out of close proximity to him. I’ve always lingered a little there, lagged slightly behind the other passengers hustling down and out. Never enough to note: moments looking at the Manhattan skyline past the sooty water lapping at sooty rocks. You can see the Statue of Liberty from there.

And that little bit of trivia has stuck with me. Unconsciously, every time my fingers curl pink around the gray fence that is the barrier to that finite horizon, I think – “I am currently higher than everyone else who is standing on a subway platform anywhere in this city.” Then, quickly – “And now, I am not,” because then I am bounding down stairs. I’m always surprised when I emerge on the sidewalk and not in the bowels of the Earth.

From there it is a brisk walk to Fairway, and then to the waterfront. That is where I wandered after purchasing the requisite bag of coffee – bitter and with heft – that keeps me coming back to the place someone once described to me as “the epitome of a City grocery experience.” There is a truth to that, I think, evoking the city in ways beyond the fact that it’s crowded and overpriced. More so, maybe, than the skyline I find once at the land’s edge: a classic symbol of the city, sure, but so bloated with the weight of its own cliché that it loses effectiveness. But that doesn’t strip it of beauty. When the G train pulls into Smith/9th, every passenger in every car turns to look at the same postcard view every time. And I am always one of them.

Not now. I’ve turned my body to face due south, looking out over the whipped blackness to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Long and Staten Islands. It’s become night now, vast and ever dark, aside from the full moon creating slicks of light onto the choppy glass of the water. I’m staring hard into the river, thoughts like sailors cast awry, and in this way do not notice the day-glo jogger retying his shoes and looking at me until a full minute has passed.

“Train’s that way,” he says in the same moment that I turn my head to him and sharply take in too much air.

“Yeah,” I manage.

There are people everywhere when I walk down Bond back towards my apartment. It’s Sunday, the promise of warmth teasing the air, so there are crowds waiting to pass at each intersection and a bubble of one forming outside of Trader Joe’s. The red hands become glowing pedestrians and beckon us, walk, walk – and we do.

Or I do, at least. I move deliberately: over concrete, wood planks, metal plates. Over subway grates, until I come upon one that is lit from within the void. I peer into it. There is a worker down there, grubby, anonymous in his blue and gray MTA grunt jumpsuit. He is holding a flashlight and gesturing with illumination through an open doorway deep in the catacomb. The moment is a stolen one, not meant to be witnessed; and when he notices the girl leering from above, his slack jawed surprise is slight and overpowered by the forceful “HEY!”  he launches into the air. He’s projecting any wrongdoing, though, and when this realization catches him he shuffles through the open door quickly.

“Hey,” I cast down softly into the dark.

Calling out to strangers in the night is probably seen as symptomatic of loneliness, but I don’t agree. Someone accused me of it recently: I was unloading relationship problems in great bushelfuls over the phone, and he stopped me. His voice was lousy with pretense when he declared it of me like the greatest realization since the dawn of the Earth. “Oh, I know – you’re just LONELY,” he warbled into the line. I don’t agree with him either.

The first words on “Room on Fire” are “I want to be forgotten.” Julian Casablancas chose these above all others as his introduction, without apology, offered on his most, and ultimately last, truly successful effort with The Strokes. For all his swagger, all his goddamn New York City bravado, Casablancas is no island. The fact that he wants to be forgotten indicates that there is an existence to be forgotten in the first place; he is not quietly slipping into the shadows but leaping into them, kicking and flashing that petulant grin. The types of people who want to be forgotten are ultimately never the ones who actually are. In the same vein, the people who seek out solitude are never the ones who suffer from an overabundance of it. “I want to be alone,” my own opening line, has never been “I want to be lonely.” For me, it is a reprieve. A necessary one.

Colum McCann gave a reading in Brooklyn the other night. After 9/11, he said, his face drawn tight and cracking at the eyes, there was a feeling of togetherness in this city. Like we were all stitched from the same fabric and suddenly found our bindings again. It was not long for this world, and beautiful, we all agreed, but one that carried with it the implication that McCann felt alone here both before and after the worst moment in American history briefly realigned personal gravities.

The depth of my love for New York City is immeasurable; the reasons behind it, innumerable. One of the most difficult to articulate is the distinct pleasure of slipping into gracious anonymity, possible anywhere and everywhere here. People who aren’t New Yorkers always characterize it as a city of lights, and speak of its habit of creating stars out of schmucks – it’s where everyone my age comes to “make it” after college. And you can. But in the same way that Jay-Z was plucked from relative obscurity in the projects of Brooklyn to sell out Madison Square Gardens three nights in a row, he can also walk down the street in New York and not be mobbed. He goes to Di Fara with his supernova of a wife all the time. Let’s see him try that in the Midwest.

The same person who once pointed out the loneliest spot in New York City to me during that summer walk also recently said to me that I moved back to it for him. It was an unfair thing to say and I felt the words boiling in my depths long after they’d stopped hanging in the air between us. At the time I assumed that it was a product of my own stubborn independence, but now I realize it undermines my experience in the city I love on the most basal level. New York is a city of nearly 10 million people, joined at the seams by the fact that we are fundamentally alone. It’s not a negative trait; it’s just endemic to this city. And that also makes it the first place where I have ever felt like I wasn’t.


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