When You’re In New York, You Need To Look Up (Don’t Look Down!)

New York is a hotbed of yearning, a nexus of such dense humanity, all of whom by nature yearn for connection with another. Sometimes all it takes is a fleeting moment of eye contact; with the person directly across from you on the subway, the almost-cute one with his headphones in but eyes roaming the crowded, too-cold train car. Or the woman who sits with her shoulders hunched over like a willow tree on the side of 21st street, clutching a tattered cardboard sign that reads, “Homeless but hopeful: anything helps.”

You may find yourself walking with your head down and eyes cast deliberately downward, interested in nothing but the asphalt under your feet and the five blocks until you get home. Involuntarily, though, you sometimes look up, you lock eyes, and a connection is made. This notion of instantaneous and wordless connections is not unique to New York. In fact, it can happen anywhere, any time, with anyone. But the colossal amount of people that fit into the compact island of Manhattan leaves room for thousands of connections made and lost every second. I have recently found myself among the endlessly renewed stream of people who find themselves constantly searching to make new connections, or the opportunity to witness one being made, no matter how miniscule or wordless they may be.

I have always thought of New York and its inhabitants as one unified place instead of separated into five different Burroughs. Whether it’s due to my fundamental inability to understand basic concepts of geography (undocumented, but utter fact!) or because I am not a New York Native, I have never fully grasped the notion that New York itself is divided. When picturing New York, I see subway cars packed with people, streets lined with vending carts selling knock-off Marc Jacob bags and hot dogs for only $2.50. In short, I envision the entirety of New York as the island of Manhattan. In spite of my complete misunderstanding of New York City geography, I have always craved connection to it. As a whole, this city has become a beacon of opportunity for me, as it has for so many others, yet not as a land of career opportunity but as a haven for the opportunity to connect, to notice and to be noticed.

There are few better places than Central Park to simply sit and watch. The first person I notice is seated on a park bench in Strawberry Fields playing “Let it Be” on the guitar wearing John Lennon-style glasses. He is not particularly on key and his guitar could certainly use an intense re-tuning, but he is so blissfully submerged in the lyrics he is singing. In his guitar case there is a sign that says “Out of Work.” The words of John Lennon have not done the trick, though — his guitar case remains painfully empty. Naked and needy. When he reaches the bridge, an Asian couple in matching neon orange visors stops by and drops a dollar bill in his guitar case. He gives them a slight nod as a “Thank you,” and continues his song. I contemplate going over and giving him some money, but then he starts yelling, seemingly at himself, and the moment is lost.

I give up my seat on the bench and wade through the sweltering 90-degree air to a small alcove where I can see the paddleboats on the pond. I find a couple alternating taking pictures of each other, as if staking a claim, saying, “we were here! This happened!” Next to them, a father and daughter come into view, both sharing the same vivid ginger hair. She is on her phone, totally oblivious to her surroundings and her father himself. The man uses extensive gesticulation and talks animatedly, trying to capture her attention. Trying to connect.

After the brief but exhaustive excursion to Central Park, I find myself on the subway, immersed in a sea of bodies and smells. There is something inexplicably solitary about riding the subway, some invisible string that bonds one passenger to the next. Perhaps it is me simply romanticizing public transportation, but the silence on those train cars leaves room for one to think and wonder. As I stand, teetering back and forth, clutching for dear life to the metallic pole, I survey my surroundings. I silently wonder what the woman in the navy-blue pantsuit is typing so rapidly about on her iPhone with the glittery pink case. A man enters the train at the next stop, and calls for everyone’s attention. He is homeless, asking for money. He says, “I am not a bad person, but I have no work.” Nobody gives. After a few tense minutes spent in awkward silence an old woman begrudgingly hands over a few coins. The train car is so oddly quiet that I can hear the metallic clink of the coins dropping one by one into the man’s clutched hand. The train lurches to a stop and the man steps of the train car, disappearing into the crowd.

I spend the night in the theater of a Broadway show, more interested in the people around me than the show itself (no offense to phantom of the opera). It’s a funny thing, seeing someone when they think no one can. There is something about being in near total darkness; it becomes a safety blanket of sorts, a cloak of invisibility, if you will. We involuntarily let our guards down, fully focused on the entertainment provided in front of us. I watch as the women across the aisle from me mindlessly shoves overpriced candy into her mouth, literally sitting on the edge of her seat. Clearly, she is a fan of the opera. I look back at her periodically throughout the show. During intermission, when the lights come up, she catches me staring. She gives me a small but visible smile, and swivels her head back around to face the stage. An hour later the show ends, and on my way out, we make eye contact once again. I plaster a smile onto my face, she does the same, and then she slips into the crowd. A connection was made, a smile was shared, and I will never see her again.

Continuing the pattern of going to all the touristy places in New York City, I venture off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The building is packed, both its front steps and the lobby. Perhaps this is because of the quality of the art in the museum, or because Gossip Girl famously filmed on its front steps—it’s hard to tell which rings true. The lobby is filled with students holding out their ID’s to get discounts (myself included), friends and couples talking to each other in hushed voices, and middle aged and men and women squinting at their map because, let’s face it, after a certain age your eye sight just isn’t as good. People mull around, some aimlessly, up the stairs, to and fro the entrance and exit. As I climb the staircase I find myself in an exhibit entitled “China Through the Looking Glass.” Two men to my right share an impressed glance on behalf of the art. Maybe they are strangers, maybe they are not. I walk a few steps to examine a bronze sculpture of the Buddha. I take in his smiling, knowing eyes, the creases just beneath them, his legs folded on top of one another. I look around me to find someone to discuss it with, if only someone would look up from their phone screens, but no one returns my stare.

Music fills the room, a soothing classical piece, yet I can barely hear it. The sounds of human conversation and interaction fill my ears, overpowering the wordless composition of music. It is a strange, melodious cacophony of sound that I consider for the entire cab ride back.

I have often heard that New York can and will either make or break you. After reflecting on this declaration I have concluded it may be because of how small or big New York can make you feel. Walking down 3rd avenue on a hot day amidst the constant stream of cabs, pedestrians, and billboards can make you feel, at times, invincible. Everyone next to and in front of and behind you has a destination, as do you. In this case, this moment where you and I and everyone around us have a place to go, we are all just beings trying to get somewhere. It is a complex feeling of simultaneous harmony and complexity that I have yet to experience anywhere else in the world. This is not so much a cliché love letter to the city that never sleeps, but instead a series of observations that I have compiled supporting my theory that, as for as I’m concerned, you can never be left feeling bored or truly alone in the state of New York. So here is my advice to you, New York: Get connected; look up. TC mark

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