Life in a city is permeated with peculiar, oft overlooked, intimacies with strangers. Take windows. As you walk through the city, you may casually glance up and see someone on the phone, a father playing with his kid, a family eating dinner, everyone everywhere watching tv. You might see someone wanking his willy but he’s probably doing that so you can see so that doesn’t really count.
But it’s not just windows. This intimacy is everywhere, all the time. You can smell your neighbors’ cooking, are privy to their parties, their taste in music, when they wake and when they sleep and when they go out.
In Species of Spaces, Georges Perec has a great thing on apartments: you’re eating your dinner and right on the other side of the wall is someone else’s bathroom. Or mere feet from where you sleep, a stranger is sleeping, as well, your two heads almost touching. If you think about it too much, it will freak you out.
When we go to the bathroom at work, in restaurants and bars, in train stations and airports, we piss, shit, pretty ourselves, change clothes, groom our nose hairs as strangers come and go inches away.
In elevators, we spend time in an incredibly small space — with strangers and their smells and ticks! Which is a little odd!
On streets and subways and buses, we are inundated with the private selves of strangers — those hangdog faces, those looks of exhaustion or interest or exuberance or malaise. Now think of all the conversations we hear all day every day about god knows what.
For the most part, we pass through these streets with one ear and one eye, if that. We have to let this teem pass us by, even if bits here and there ricochet into our consciousness. I find it’s usually the hilarious rantings of the insane that penetrate the veil. The mad don’t know the rules of space, of sound, and so their private worlds collide into ours with more vigor. (I can still hear the old grey haired white dude, shirtless, ranting in the West Philly streets: “I’m gonna raise an army of lesbians and take over McDonalds!”)
Sometimes, you catch someone looking at you longer than they’re supposed to and with a bit more interest than is prescribed. It’s always a poignant, if understated, moment when your eyes meet and the other person looks away. The speed of the encounter is everything — did they hold your gaze for a moment or did they look immediately away?
As a little boy living in Manhattan, my mother always told me not to make eye contact with strangers. Crazy things happen when strangers lock eyes; it can have the most powerful effect, tearing down protocol and inviting sudden intimacy: violence, sex, laughter, understanding.
When you think about all the lives that intersect us with surprising intimacy, it is overwhelming. It is an incredible skill we’ve all learned, this tuning in and out (mostly out), this ability to be ourselves within the impossible density of other people’s lives.
I used to do my laundry at this laundromat on the corner. I’d sit outside on a bench as my clothes tumbled. A young woman — 20-something — lived in the apartment across the way. As I’d sit there, she’d saunter back and forth in less and less clothes until she was naked. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the city, even if quite beautiful. But what was truly beautiful was when we’d see each other face to face, on the street or even in the laundromat, exchanging not even a glance but sharing this very strange kind of intimacy.
Sometimes, it’s distance that affords a certain kind of closeness.
From a one angle, it may seem sad as if we’re ignoring each other, turning a blind eye to humanity. But it’s not sad. On the contrary, it’s amazing and beautiful: to be able to live amidst such a swarm of humanity, taking in snippets here and there, all without being swept away.