Alone in the Crowd

March 3, 2010

What is it about these cities that makes them so similar, leave me feeling so nearly identical despite their unique identities? Each maintains its own culture, own customs, traditions, and architecture – so many places, so many different interactions, such a wide range of experiences. Every city is its own world. Yet every city I’ve ever been in makes me feel the same. I’ve been in San Jose or Bogota, Guatemala City, Bucaramanga, or Tegucigalpa, and had the same thoughts and feelings as in Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco.

People in cities act the same – not all of them, but enough so that I notice. They’re busy, driven, motivated to do things I can only guess at, moving through life from point A to point F, and they can’t be bother to acknowledge the existence of any points B through ZZ in between. I dimly remember a psychological study from a few years ago, where people would be asked to walk between various places, under different levels of distraction, and somewhere in the middle a clown in full makeup would ride a unicycle across their path while juggling. Most people didn’t notice it even happen, especially those on their cell phones or told to hurry. People are so focused and busy that they can’t be bothered with or distracted by anyone around them. I feel like I’m the clown in most cities – holey clothes, a big bag, this goofy grin and that stupid curly mop on my head. Nobody even bats an eye. Perhaps if I did handstands…

It’s relieving sometimes, I won’t lie. There are times when I just want to be hidden in plain view, and I won’t pretend to be alone in that. Other times though, I want to be noticed, acknowledged, seen, grinned back at. Rarely do I get that here, rarely in any city. It’s taboo to break into the worlds of others, verboten to interact with them unless in response to some mistaken contact, shove, bump. Try sitting on the subway sometime and just looking at someone else for too long – the ugly faces I’ve gotten back shouldn’t shock me, but they do anyway. “Fuck you,” the look says, “did I give you permission to look at me?” So cold, so troublesome. What if I just liked your hair, or thought you looked relaxed leaning as you were? It’s such a big deal to break into peoples’ bubbles that most everyone doesn’t bother – I can feel myself disengaging, putting my own shell up already, and it scares me so deeply. What if I become so hard I can’t let others in either?

I guess I understand the rationale – there are a million jillion people around, there isn’t any hope of a lasting relationship with most of them, so why bother, why interact at all with those you don’t have to? I just don’t like it. I think it’s a cop-out, a way to justify one’s own callousness and treat one’s fellow humans as undeserving of simple kindnesses. I think it’s a sign of illness, frankly – a deficiency of spirit, of love, a worrisome trend away from connection with one’s species. On some level it’s an abdication of reality. If you wouldn’t glare at your friend for glancing your direction and smiling, why would you insult a stranger so? So many of us, stuck in such a small area, yet instead of allowing this proximity to aid us in knowing one another better, we instead take it the opposite direction, take offense at our neighbors, segregate ourselves out from the mass of humanity. A tragedy, and yet by the numbers, a far more common, far more “natural” reaction.

Is it self-protection? Are we worried that those around us will hurt us, will sap us of something, energy, a resource, that we hold in short supply and must thus ration out? Perhaps if we smiled at, said hello to every person we passed in a given day here it would be exhausting… except that in other places, the small towns of the world, in Central American pueblitos where everyone knows one another, they really do that, really smile at, greet, talk to everyone they cross paths with! Sure, there are fewer people, but the interactions are far deeper, more open, and require a far more intense amount of oneself. Besides, I’m not advocating that – we don’t have to be Hondurans, but we probably ought to know our neighbors by name, return smiles given to us, say hello to people in elevators and when our eyes meet on street corners. That isn’t much, just the barest level of humanity, to treat others as more than part of the scenery. At least, I see it like that. Perhaps I’m the crazy one.

The second thing I notice in cities is that everything has a purpose. Everything around me, from the trees planted in lines to the cobblestones to the power lines, brick buildings, cars, fences, traffic signals… every single thing in this world was built, created, constructed with some purpose in mind, by someone with a mind and a plan. It changes how you think, subtly yet completely, to exist in this sort of place. It makes intelligent design seem possible, probable, irresistably true when nothing around came about naturally, when evolution has been replaced by creationism, when the egg came before the chicken but not until after they were both analysed in subcommittee, voted on, had funding approved, and were built by the mayor’s nephew’s construction company. It must rewire your brain somehow, to have such a lined out, rule-driven, purposeful world. There’s no imagination necessary!

It takes about a week before I start craving open spaces, sky, grass, a tree to climb. I want to see a horse, or a cow, or a man riding a horse with a machete and a woven hat. I start dreaming of dirt roads full of potholes, open highways, hitchhiking in the backs of trucks past the horizon toward… whatever is there. Who cares? Traveling and cities aren’t compatible – the former being a state of existence where destination isn’t important and purpose doesn’t factor in, the latter being a destination whose very existence demands purpose. It feels like my dreams don’t exist in cities, can’t survive the bright lights and movement, aren’t able to sprout up through the asphalt. Instead that life, fragile and real, shakes itself and slinks off defeated to parts unknown – nobody here wanted it around in the first place.

The third thing I notice in the cities is actually something I don’t see – emotions. People are more guarded, treat their true feelings, reactions, thoughts as if they are something to be saved and protected from harsh reality. I don’t see many smiles, I haven’t heard more than a few people laughing outside, don’t see many hugs or kisses, and when someone is outwardly affectionate it’s weird and awkward. My grinning draws suspicious looks. The loud woman laughing on the phone gets pitying glances, my cousin and I get eyes rolled at us when we embrace on the subway. There are so many masks in cities. Is it so hard to be honest, emotional, raw? There must be penalties I’m not aware of, surely. What else explains how hard everyone is, how brittle armor covers their emotional flesh? It protects them from harm, but at the price of deflecting kindnesses and small loves – the emotional barrier isn’t sensitive enough to differentiate between good and bad attention, and so it all is kept out.

It’s a choice, but I don’t know how many people are aware they are making it – how many actually think “today I’m going to be aloof and cold toward everyone so that nobody hurts or bothers me.” I imagine that the number of those making conscious choices is so much smaller than those who do it without thinking, if only because it’s such an easy rut to fall into – even if you did make the choice, you’d only have to make it once or twice. After that routine is powerful, and if you’re not accustomed to having regular interactions with strangers, how would you even know that they were missing? I admit that if not for my life being so different lately I would probably slide through the world as they do, sidestepping past the cold activists on the street corner, dodging the homeless bumming cigarettes, sliding or hopefully moonwalking past the woman struggling to carry a stroller up three flights of stairs. The problem wouldn’t be a problem if I could ignore it too… right?

The romantic drifter in me says “yes, it would still be an issue.” The difference is just that I wouldn’t think about it and therefore wouldn’t be bothered by something that never entered my mind. Still, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me – it’s just like that dicho, that saying about how there are things we know, those we know we don’t know and those things we aren’t even aware we don’t know – those who put up their shields and glide through the world aren’t even aware of what they’re missing! They roar through their days like a knife through soft cheese, and I take a grater to the whole block. It takes a lot more effort, gives you a whole lot of small bits, but if you don’t take the effort to see it you’re blind to a whole universe right around you, and that’s just not healthy even if you aren’t aware of it.

I really do worry to think about it – how many people do you know that just blow right through life with the blinders on, rushing from home-work-appointments-reunions-meetings-car-cafe-home again without daring to stop on a street corner and chat with a stranger? How much are they missing without meeting Clayton from Alabama, sharing a lumpy cigarette and hearing how he is stuck living on the streets of NYC because his girlfriend threw him out again? He’s never been in a big city before! I told him how to get free meals at the Whole Foods salad bar – hope it comes in handy. What could be more important than these brief, bare moments with others? Then there’s Tim, sitting at the bus stop drumming on the bench and singing his heart out. How is it that out of everyone passing by or waiting for the bus, I was the only one to join in? It’s crazy! Almost as crazy as the looks people give me when I start up conversations in the elevator – though to be fair, I was way underdressed for that place… The point still stands though, that all of the best things in life are free, unplanned, and completely unexpected, and those who don’t leave themselves open to it are going to miss life dancing, laughing, spinning around them. When it comes down to your final breaths, will you really be proud of the time you spent at work, of your schedule, or the things you did to survive?

There’s a scene I remember in a movie I don’t, where one of the main characters in caught in hell as punishment for committing suicide. She’s unable to see anything outside of her own world, shuts herself off from the beauty of the existence, is too busy and self-involved to realize that everything, everwhere, is heaven, and if we only open our eyes to it, everything wonderful lies spread before us, open and inviting. We’re in danger of doing the same here, focusing so tightly on the finish line that we miss the beautiful vista all around. “It’s all in your head,” I want to scream to the pedestrians chasing laser-beam paths, to the blank stares on the subway, to the crowds of emotionless strangers. How much more wonderful it could be if we all just let the world in, accepted the small hurts in order to take in the song-worthy and beautiful as well. Of course, if I did scream that to them, all I’d get in response is rolled eyes and uncomfortable looks. Rocking the boat is strictly prohibited.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m in the minority here – that most people are content to live the life solitary, ignore the connections we all share, because it is safe and easy to just cut ties and live alone. Or at least, it feels that way. It isn’t bad until the cold night – when your boyfriend hasn’t been returning your calls, when you’ve been fighting with the roommate and your brother and parents are on the other side of the continent and all you want is human connection– that you get that sinking feeling inside, start to feel just the outlines of what you are missing. By then the armor is strong, the defenses protecting you impermeable, and the detachment you relied on to keep the cruel world away now do their job so well that you can’t make the connections you need… I wonder how one deals with that but I imagine one side effect is an alcohol industry that does just fine. I don’t know, don’t want to find out, because to me the true value of small gestures, smiles and winks, shared jokes and smokes, is visible and omnipresent. I can’t be closed any more now that I’ve seen what a joy it is to be open – I can’t relate to those sailing past, faces set. We’re drifting apart, and I’m hesitant to even try to interact…

Wait a second! Perhaps this is how it starts – no conscious decision, just a group feeling of isolation in the face of many unknown faces, so many strangers, and it’s all moving so fast. I can feel the allure of just shutting up, setting my face, and turning up my coat. It tugs at my sleeve like a little kid trying to get my attention would. As the cities grow bigger, the buildings taller, and the faces start to blur, what can I relate to, why bother to try?

Half of all humans live in cities now, some three and a half billion people, living in slums, high-rises, apartments, grouped closer together yet further apart than ever before. We’re so close now we could hug, but how many of us would dare hug our next door neighbor? What is her name anyway? I wonder what happens when this city existence is all we know, whether we will even look at each other at all, or if our lens-implanted-facebook-connected virtual wireless internet-enabled devices of the future will allow us to stay entertained, connected, hooked up, jacked in, completely and utterly isolated a full 100% of the time. Every man an island, with more friends and social connections than ever before, and fewer friendships, less human connection than anyone would have thought possible. Like, unlike, tag, comment, buzz, tweet, connect, network, share, mesh – how did we ever meet anyone before all of these helpful technological advances? Surely we’ve come so far that nobody would ever need to stoop to actually talking to a stranger… right?

Heaven forbid. Not in my future!


2 Responses to “Alone in the Crowd”

  1. The Lovely Miss Becky Says:

    Kevin, I feel as if you are channeling my thoughts, the tiny little voice that says, “This isn’t right. If we want to be different, be better, THIS has to change.” I’ve been dying inside since I’ve been home because I feel myself closing down. After so many rude looks when I try to be pleasant, and after so much time waiting for somebody to pick up on my open vibe and TALK to me, LOOK at me, I do feel myself insulating myself against that rejection. I need to fight it – and I do. Being inside the schools and interacting with kids – especially kids who need a little extra attention – helps immeasurably (though it does call attention to our system of inaccurate labeling…after all, if I can make fast friends with an autistic fourth grader in 15 minutes and “regular” people routinely flake out as I try to hang out and be friendly, who’s really underdeveloped?) What do we do, Kevin? Are we really so far outside the norm?

  2. Citizen K Says:

    I don’t know Becky, I don’t know. I like to think we’re not so uselessly far outside the norm, but really – I’m starting to worry about the entire country. If people keep going this way, keep isolating themselves in bubbles of noise, I feel like we’re headed straight into Fahrenheit 451. I just keep asking myself what, what on Earth, could be more important than connecting with and interacting with other people? I don’t have the answers certainly, but I’m starting to suspect nobody else does either.

    My friend Natalie wrote that post just this morning, about something we saw yesterday afternoon in the subway station. It was really well-timed if tragic, because we’d been arguing about the disconnect between average people in NYC (it was the original prompt of this post) and wham! – right there in our faces, thrown out there – exactly what we were talking about.

    Or this conversation right here at my table – “I don’t care” the woman says to her daughter, “I don’t care about what you have to show me.” To her friend now, “That’s always my answer to kids, ‘I don’t care.’ There are so many more things to do than listen to kid stuff.”

    5 seconds later

    “Who is this artist?”
    “I have no idea what’s going on around me any more. I just can’t be bothered to pay attention to culture.”

    Both laugh.

    Young artist at next table sniffs at them and rolls his eyes, then pulls his headphones back on. The women continue talking about how badly behaved children are these days as they literally SHOUT OVER the poor daughter, who just wants to show her mom what she’s drawn. Mom hands daughter her iphone, tells her to play some video games.

    Another small bit of me dies again.

    It’s a fucked up situation, right?! As for what to DO about it – the pickle we keep coming back to – I just don’t know! I think you’re closer to the right path, spending your time with children and those who do still care, do still interact. Perhaps we have to cut some of them loose? Acknowledge that some of the human race isn’t ever going to be open to, or pay any attention to their species, and then focus our efforts on those who do respond. I’m still scared that this isn’t anything more than the same they’re doing, however.

    I guess I’ll just keep on doing what I am, engaging people who don’t like the interruption, being the smiling guy in the corner, living as I choose to – what else can I, without compromising myself? It’s terribly confusing my friend, I’ll grant you that. Perhaps we’re just not meant for this part of the world? There has to be somewhere where people treat eachother as people, right?

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