Walking in New York City is one big game of chicken. I’m sizing you up from a good ten yards out. You’re sizing me up as well and we’re both watching for the first sign of failing nerve. That is, unless you’re looking at your phone, you imbecile, in which case I have the right of way.
I don’t think I used to be like this. I think that when I lived in Cleveland I just moved out of your way. But in Cleveland there’s room to do that. On a trip back last year I was stunned at the wide sidewalks in downtown Cleveland that had no one on them.
That’s not how things are in New York City. Here, it’s pick your lane and don’t back down.
I moved to New York in 2000 after living in Cleveland for most of my adult life (Don’t look like that; it’s a very nice city with a cost of living to die for. Sometimes for the sheer fun of it, I’ll cruise Craigslist and check out the rents). And, baby, did I ever have a free fall of adjusting to do when I first got to The City.
Let’s talk about personal space for a minute because it’s very much related to you getting out of my way.
For months after I arrived in New York I was in a constant state of agitation over you being too damned close to me. I mean, I can deal with it on the trains or rush hour buses, but every day on every street and in every public space you were crowding me. I was used to having my allotted 2 to 3 feet of personal space in every direction. So, yes, it took some getting used to when I had people within inches of me all day long.
Another thing that I learned about personal space specifically on trains (aka subways to the rest of the country) and buses is that if I adjust my space to make more room for you out of some misguided sense of courtesy, you will spread out to take that space and push for more.
I don’t do that anymore. You don’t like it? Too bad.
So far, I have been very fortunate in not usually having to cram myself into rush hour trains for my daily commute. There was about seven months there when I was working down near Wall Street and had no choice but to wedge myself into a packed #2 or #3 train to get to work. I always brought a book and once I did get a seat, that’s it, I dove into the book and everyone else could fight all they wanted for space. My space had just opened up in front of my eyes and in my imagination.
You’re on your own.
Then there’s getting off the train at rush hour at a station where the hordes are pressing against the door before it even opens. I’m saying: “Excuse me” but what I mean is:
“BACK UP, YOU IDIOT, HOW DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING TO GET ON THE DAMNED TRAIN IF YOU DON’T LET US OFF FIRST?”
In time, I have adjusted in all the ways one needs to in order to maintain sanity in a borderline insane city like New York. I don’t cede space and I generally don’t back down. But I got spanked good one night getting off the #2 train at 14th Street when I did a solid body block on some pinhead trying to shove onto the train before I could get out.
I didn’t look back to see he’d managed to miss the train and was taken completely by surprise when he shoved his hand into the middle of my back as I was going up the stairs. I was so taken off guard that I just stood there while he ranted for about two minutes (in a charmingly clipped British accent, by the way). I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
That was years ago. Today anyone trying that is going to get an earful.
It’s a thing; the daily stresses of living in The Greatest City in the World. And for a good while it was wearing on me. Even if I was living off peak and seldom dealing with the worst of the crowding and pushing and swearing. I still stepped out of my apartment every day with my force fields up and my shoulders hunched. Here it comes. The onslaught of all those inconsiderate louses, shoving into my space and blocking my way.
It’s better now.
It’s better because one day it dawned on me that I was always in someone else’s way, too. A thousand times every day a monologue is playing out in a dozen heads lined up right behind me: Get out of MY way!
Here’s my theory: the reason a city as chaotic and out of control as New York works at all on a day to day basis is because every single one of 8,000,000 plus people are genuinely doing the best we’re capable of that day. Some days it pretty damned lame and doesn’t look so great. Especially to anyone trying to get a seat before we do on the bus on a rainy day, but trust me, this is the best any of us are able to muster today.
When I give you a break and shift a bit to make room for all those bags from Lord & Taylor you’re piling onto the seat next to you, really I’m letting myself off the hook just a little for the many known and unrealized infractions I commit every day.
So, here, let me get out of your way.
Thanks for reading this all the way to the end (gold star and pony for you!) and if you liked this one you may like:
The year I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, the city went into default on its outstanding loans. The boy mayor got bounced out…
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