Many people who live in New York will tell you, eyes aglaze, that the city speaks to them. If they leave for the summer — as many do — it’s the brisk, buzzing air and sidewalks strewn with crimson leaves that draws them back, trancelike, in the fall; at night, it’s a warming cocktail of sirens and subway tremors that delivers them askew into the arms of slumber. “I tried moving away once,” someone told me last weekend, “but the sadness I felt when I left wasn’t normal. It was like my fucking wife had died. So I came back.”
Answering the call of the city is a sentiment I can certainly relate to after eight years — but it’s never been one I’ve claimed as my own until now. This week, I’ve been hearing its voice (or, more accurately, voices) loud and clear.
“I haven’t been able to find a book I like lately,” a woman said to me on the bus a couple of days ago. “I’m just not connecting. Have any ideas?”
On Tuesday, a truck driver outside the grocery store spent 15 minutes explaining to me the inner workings of the seafood industry. “You have no idea how much fish we got in the back of this truck,” he said. Then, in what may well be one the oddest moments I’ve shared with a stranger, he whispered: “If you want some, just take it.”
Finally, the following night, a teenage girl gestured for me to remove my headphones as I stood waiting for the E train at 14th Street. “I’m having a terrible day,” she said. “Can I tell you about it?” After I’d heard about the run-in with her boss, and the misunderstanding about her finals schedule, and the write-up she’d received as wrongful punishment for being tardy, she asked how I spent my afternoon. “You’re a writer?” she said, raising an eyebrow after I told her. “Well, I have stories.”
Over the years, I’ve held on to relics of run-ins with strangers. I have a picture someone drew of my “blossoming spirit” — a snarling mess of lines and ink blots and upside-down eyeballs — as I sat outside a bodega, shortly after arriving in Brooklyn. I saved a copper lion a man on an airplane seemed to produce from thin air before handing it to me as we landed in LA, and a crayoned astronaut from a child in Cambodia who said, very seriously, “for when you visit the moon.”
“Life is not about money,” my dad told me on the phone a few days ago. “Or jobs. Or things. Life is only about loving people.”
I thought about this after saying goodbye to the girl on the train platform— maybe, then, it’s also about pushing to experience as much as possible, and to let ourselves feel as much as we can, so that we’re prepared to receive —and understand, and relate to — others, no matter how well we know them or how different we appear.
The tools we pick up along the way help us speak to those around us, and hear them when they speak to us. What we learn, we use.
I know how that feels, the girl on the platform said to me when I told her about a similar day I’d had recently. And she did.
One night weeks ago, I went to a show at an apartment in Bed-Stuy that, I was told upon arrival, was haunted. Its cheerful tenant, who wore a leather jacket and carried a tray of crudite, relayed this information with a lighthearted roll of the eyes. “When we moved in, we found hair in the oven,” she said brightly.
Someone cracked a window and the music began. We ate strangely delicious out-of-season snap peas and listened to a man with a mustache sing a song about love while standing on a suitcase. Later, before bed, I’d write about it in a notebook: most of it made me cringe.
But I understood the words. And that gave it its own beauty.
“People say that every song’s already been written,” a man in a molting feather headdress said when it was over. “But maybe it’s like, we hear them differently every time depending on who’s singing it — does that make sense?”
Behind us, a girl in ripped jeans stumbled on the stairs, sending a beer bottle hurtling to the ground with a smash. Everyone jumped. Feathers flew. Someone wondered if the ghosts had been disturbed.
“I think it does,” I said to the man, “yes.” And it did.