Reflections in White Water

I was, at first, inclined to write about running away from my mistakes to the protective arms of New York City. But it snowed today. I forgot about all that had happened, and just took in the beauty. That is the power of New York. To one moment seem unbearable, and the next, make you believe that you are more than just a solitary human among a vast universe. Were we that insignificant, God would not waste his time on giving us something so beautiful as snowfall in New York City.

I have never been more emotionally whipsawed than since moving to New York City. Sometimes I walk her streets to feel better about things. But I always come back feeling worse. New York City is a magnifying glass, and if you expose your emotions to her, she does not help. She preys. But she is of two minds. Like seeing the snow today. There are days when everything just seems right. The most boring class can turn out to be the most electrifying lecture on days when New York City is generous. She will make it snow as though she has been hiding it and can’t wait to show her New Yorkers what she has for them.

On the good days, when everyone else is covering their hair and shivering and complaining about inevitable winter weather, New York will realize that she has given you a hard time the past few weeks, and will make it up to you by messing with your emotions again. You won’t feel the cold. You won’t care that your books are crinkling from the falling snow. You will simply brush your hair out of your eyes, and let the white water fall onto your lashes, and smile up at the sky. Walking, you note every red hand turns to a white man when you get to the edge of each curb. Why not a green man? Why are the colors for “stop” and “go” universal everywhere except the crosswalks of New York City? She does what she wants.

She won’t tell you why she is feeling generous today, and you won’t question. New York is temperamental. She is bipolar, and takes you with her, sliding down to every nadir and floating up to every apex of emotion.

But the slide down is always faster than the climb back up. New York gets grouchy when she is tired. At five in the morning, when she is asleep and you are drunk, she is the tough-loving mother who will let you learn the hard way and provide no sympathy. But she always leaves her streets available to the heartbroken girls who need to walk them and clear their minds.

Such walks can be dangerous as New York sleeps. Without her protection, the streets crawl with emptiness, leaving you to the mercy of your own mind. For once New York has slowed down and you are on speed.

Sometimes, New York is inside out—where there are more people outside on the streets than inside. The hallways are outside. The people are moving about outside as if they were walking through their schools going from class to class. It is backwards. Just as the people are. So many people ignoring each other. Walk down the block and see three people you know, all of whom pretend they don’t see you because they have to maintain the New York scowl. You return in kind. That is a New York down. One of her bipolar lows. The crowds of familiar faces are just as unfamiliar as the crowds of strangers.

Inside out again. There are the subways. Like burrowing moles we scurry along underground, surrounding ourselves with steel and concrete. The subway is the art of New York City. There is always exotic music on the platforms. Dance competitions whose reward is a copper penny worn proudly inside a plastic cup. The graffitist bum who refuses to stop talking until you shake his hand. He latches on. He begs. Just a dollar. But you spent your last two on a MetroCard.

Once you are finally on the subway and the panic of possibly being on the wrong one passes, you feel the warmth of the steel pole slithering between your fingers. Mental note: Do not touch anything until you’ve washed your hands. You look around discretely and catch people doing the same, pretending to look just over your head when your eyes land in theirs. Hold on, a stop. The train suddenly slows and balance is thrown off, flustering everyone’s sprezzatura, forcing readjustments both physical and mental. It is more crowded now. Your happy bubble is invaded. Your hand lost its place on the festering pole and you are forced to rely on the bodies of cloaked strangers for balance.

It is amazing how anyone in New York is ever right on time. The subway will either get you where you need to be fifteen minutes early or fifteen minutes late. Always inconvenient, you wind up apologizing profusely for making someone either rush or wait.

People sometimes become agoraphobic in New York. They cannot accept that they are not individuals when dropped in the center of a whole. As we do not distinguish between bees gathered around their hive, we do not distinguish between people gathered in New York City. This loss of individuality quickly equates to a loss of oneself. Each individual realizes s/he is no longer a human being with an exterior barrier. The body no longer excludes and isolates that person from all the other individuals. There is no self. Bodies in the crowd mean nothing. All the individuals melt together into a faceless pool.

The girl who is unwilling to subject herself to stepping outside the confines and comfort of the safe, familiar indoors winds up starving until someone else will walk with her for food. It is as if once she steps outside alone, she will step off of the earth. She will cease to exist. Outside is haunting. Something will happen. There will be a complete mental whiteout in the middle of a rainy day once she steps onto the mobbed streets of an unfamiliar territory in New York City. It all looks the same. Numbered streets. Subways. Avenues. A blend of foreign sights. If she goes with someone, she will not be lost in the blend. She will not lose herself to the pool of sameness because someone in the crowd can recognize her face. Someone can distinguish between her and the rest. Her disappearance into the abyss would have gone unnoticed by all if not for the one. One who sees a shape amidst the blur of all the rest.

Especially at night. At night everything seems to shift. You are walking down Fifth Avenue and suddenly it turns into Third. Maybe it wasn’t Fifth after all. But there was a sign. Or the straight numbered streets start to move diagonally, and the sidewalk ends with construction and pedestrian detours. You are stuck walking around the same four blocks in the 60’s rather than progressing toward West 4th.

Your phone dies. A guy in an idling van leers at you and gets out. You forgot your gloves. It is freezing. Empty pockets. No cash for a cab. Nothing. You try to walk into a building but the door is locked. It is eleven and dark. You knock on the door as the man in the white van leans against his door and stares at you hungrily. The security guard is annoyed because he has to do his job and let you in. Finally inside. Warmth. Safety behind the locked door. For now. Every time someone walks through the door, though, it closes teasingly slowly, as if to say, “You’re really not safe at all. That man that’s been staring at you is only ten feet off. I’m too lazy to keep him away.” So you leave and walk around the corner. Freezing again. But the dark is comforting in a way because no one can see the fear in your eyes.

That’s when you meet the albino. But he forgot to look away, and you can’t stop forgetting to do so. The stone steps leading underground look unused until you seek peace there. Then all the footprints appear. How many times have you walked past these stairs and wanted to sit because they looked safe and alone. And just as you have a reason to walk to the bottom and sit down, sneakers and cigarette butts come dangerously close to your black pants, which now have the remains of cold stone and the vanished corpse of a hobo all over them. I have replaced him. I am now the bum on the steps watching black soles stride past me. I watch them step on used cigarettes to extinguish their last light. I am the cigarette on the steps. Used. Crushed. Burnt.

This is what it must be like to be a bum. I never realized that they might actually feel out of place sitting on New York. We just accept them as if that is what they are supposed to do, but what if they are in a constant state of wishing to uproot, and have nowhere to go?

That is the generous New York, who doesn’t realize when she is doing more harm than good with her unquestioning acceptance.

She accepts the hippies and the druggies and the businessmen as all one class. She is the mother, and refuses to choose the favorite child. Some make it, some don’t. But New York is there no matter what, with or without, for the haves and have-nots.

She proudly displays the “We Have Karaoke!” sign with an arrow pointing into a barber shop. There are no limits, as even buildings try to show—cutting through clouds which try to protect their sky from the reach of mere steel creations.

The redhead wearing all black sits on the steps next to me. She looks just like me. And we sit, strangers, side by side, as if it were perfectly normal to see us together. And it is. Here. And we’re okay with that.

The moment of panic we both felt radiate through us when she sat down passes quickly. The panic of “this is not normal,” of “do I/does she really want to sit down?” And how awkward it might be if she has nothing to do and I am writing. But it isn’t. New York extracts discomfort and stereotypical aversion toward what is not normal.

Sure we feel the panic of the mental directional mishaps in the labyrinth of New York, but as people, we are much more settled amongst the commotion of our own minds. We are forced to be. We wouldn’t survive otherwise.

I forgot all about the beauty of snowfall in New York, because it seemed as though it happened in another place that simply resembled New York City. New York does not hold grudges, or flatter and praise in excess. She moves on and provides another experience. Like feeling completely in place when you stand out so much.

That is why New York is the handbook that must be read before there is a chance to take on the practical part of the final exam. When she releases you from the cycle of depression and euphoria, loneliness and crowds, immensity and claustrophobia, she introduces you to yourself for the very first time.

This piece was awarded Honorable Mention in a New Millennium Writings contest.