Isn't It Pretty To Think So?

Dispatches on life, love and the human condition by a wanderer and hopeful romantic

Public space, private lives


subwayeyeAs I prepare to leave New York for two months — setting up for a more permanent move if my trial separation goes well — I’m starting to reflect on my time here, stacking up observations of life in New York like books I will take along on my trip.

Something occurred to me the other when I was having a particularly difficult phone conversation on the corner of Essex and Delancey, just about to head into the F train subway station.

For one thing, having an actual phone conversation in and of itself in this day and age is quite remarkable. In the days when even the most personal and disastrous events of our lives are shared via text message, it was a luxury to share my thoughts in my own voice and hear a live human’s vocal cords at work on the other end of a mobile device.

But what I also realized during that conversation is one thing that will always be indelibly New York to me — how so much of our personal lives are played out in public. Because the private spaces of our apartments are usually quite small, and our lives so busy we are always rushing here to there, we live our lives in full view of the entire city — or whoever happens to be nearby at any particular time.

Moving to New York was not something I did particularly by choice. I was at a crossroads in my life, living in San Francisco, recently out of a significant relationship and still grieving the mother I lost to cancer just two years before. When my company suggested I vacate a position on our team in New York and leave SF, I didn’t exactly jump at the chance, but I thought it was the next best logical move.

When I arrived in September 2006, New York as a city — big, dirty, impersonal, busy — terrified me. I had only a couple casual acquaintances and felt immediately lost and very much alone here.

I remember early in my New York time talking to a friend in Portland, Oregon, as I walked through the lower West Village on my way to see my then therapist. (It was one of the first things I secured in New York after finding an apartment, office space and a good hairstylist.)

I was lamenting my move and sobbing, wondering what the hell I was doing here, sharing how alone and lost I felt. I was entirely focused on my conversation and my crying, yet also aware of how public my display of grief was, for New York has a strange effect on people — it gives you tunnel vision and yet makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings at the same time.

Even as I sobbed my worries into my cellphone, I realized how not a single person turned a head or batted an eye at this nearly incoherently babbling, mess of a women walking down Varick Street. All of them had their own cares and troubles to attend to, and my state that day wasn’t anything they hadn’t seen 1,000 times before, nor was it urgent enough to demand any immediate attention.

Not only are so many of our personal dramas played out in public, but they usually happen on or near some form of public transportation, an observation not lost on me the other night outside the F train stop on the LES.

More than anything else, the MTA is the pulse of New York City. Anyone who lives and works in the city is at its mercy, and it’s hard to be outside anywhere in the five boroughs — except maybe Staten Island — and escape the constant soundtrack of a rattling train or a chugging bus.

And so our very public lives are not only played out in public streets, but also on public transportation. I’ve even had an entire intimate relationship with someone start, end, start again and finally reach an uneasy detente on the B61 bus that travels from Red Hook, Brooklyn, the Long Island City, Queens.

The ironic thing about the fact that we share our personal lives with so many other people in New York all the time is this: it has not made us more intimate. Sure there is a “we’re all in this together” feeling that I appreciate about New York, especially when you can share a rolling of the eyes with a fellow subway passenger when service is particularly slow or you have to sit through yet another mariachi performance on the A train.

But something about putting the most intimate moments of our lives on public display makes them less personal, less meaningful and more mundane somehow.

Because we see them happening so often to so many others around us, they become as common as the wad of gum discarded on the bottom of the subway staircase, or the newspaper blowing around one of the many canyons of Manhattan on a windy day.

They somehow lose their personal significance to our lives when we see so many other people going through the same things we go through every day. And though there is comfort in the feeling that we are not alone in our troubles, the turned heads when we’re sobbing our woes into a cell phone somehow make us feel more alone than ever.

I love you New York, but I will not miss this about you when I’m gone. And I hope that I haven’t lost my ability to not only feel compassion for the plight of others, but also to show it when I see someone else in pain, rather than pass idly by because it’s a scene I’ve seen played out so many times before.

Author: elizabethmontalbano

I am a writer, photographer, lover, fighter, traveler and bon vivant currently residing in southwest Portugal.

2 thoughts on “Public space, private lives

  1. Because we see them happening so often to so many others around us, they become as common as the wad of gum discarded on the bottom of the subway staircase …

    Hmm. I hadn’t thought about it precisely like that, but I think this is actually an aspect of New York I quite like: perspective.

    NYC makes very clear that you are one human being among millions and millions. Growing up in Maryland, I lived in a standard-model house my parents had built. No one ever lived there before us. In NYC, I live in an apartment in a brownstone built in the late 19th century — and now, it’s the 21st. Other people have lived in these walls and stepped on these exact same floorboards. Any the house and the floorboards will be home to new people after I’m gone.

    In some people, that aspect of New York causes existential heebiejeebies. To me, it feels reassuring to be living in a place makes very clear, I’m one dot among billions.

  2. You are truly a New Yorker, Stacy! I like your perspective and think it’s much more optimistic than mine. But I guess I fall into the category of people who get existentially bugged out by NYC. I have never quite gotten comfortable there, despite the city’s many charms.

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