Most people have vivid memories of their first moments in New York City. Famous authors remember the feeling of hopping into an airport cab and crossing the Queensboro Bridge, the whole island of Manhattan laid out before their eyes. Broadway actors reminisce about emerging from underground for the first time to encounter an exhilarating crush of people, lights, and billboards.
My first New York moment happened somewhere unlikely.
The day I landed at JFK, it was 90 degrees outside, and my West Coast sensibilities weren’t prepared for the high humidity. The hellish conditions were even worse below ground, and as I waited for a train to Flushing Meadows, the straps of my heavy backpack were slipping from sweat.
But what I remember first and foremost about that inaugural moment in New York was the six-foot man immediately to my left, also drenched in sweat, who suddenly burst out into soulful song:
Oh, yes, I’m the great pretender
Pretending that I’m doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell
Yes, I’m the great pretender
Just laughin’ and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I’m not, you see
I’m wearing my heart like a crown
Look, I’m no idiot. I know people perform for money all the time in the Subway, and I know because I witnessed more than five such performances in as many days. Most of the music was cheesy mariachi or badly-tuned barbershop, and the clear target was some clueless, wide-eyed tourist who didn’t know to avert his eyes and keep a straight face.
But at this particular Subway platform, in the heart of an immigrant neighborhood in Queens, no one around me wore track shoes or Jansport backpacks or I ♥ NY paraphernalia. I appeared to be the sole luggage-bearer and non-commuter. And that singer? I believed him.
Just an hour into my stay in New York, I’d already bought into a tired cliché, the idea that all the city’s inhabitants were secretly lonely. I imagined they were all great pretenders, happy and thriving from without but isolated islands from within. This was my romantic first impression of New York, and I suspect it stemmed from preconceived notions.
Luckily for me, New York was hell-bent on proving me wrong.
The city dealt its first blow at a cafe in Brooklyn the next morning. The Jamaican barista took my coffee order and then stopped mid-pour. “Wait,” she said. “Are you related to someone who lives near here?” I shook my head and said sorry, no. “It’s weird. I have a friend who works two blocks away and she looks exactly like you. She said her sister was in town, so I thought…”
Even after I correctly identified myself as a visitor and stranger, the conversation continued…for five minutes. I learned about her family and she learned about my life. We chatted about the weather. Then, a regular customer came in and the barista introduced us.
If this had happened in Seattle or Boulder, I’d have found it exceedingly odd. In places where I’ve lived, baristas–sane ones, anyway–do not launch into conversations with perfect strangers. Sometimes, they barely have two words to say to regulars. For such a small-town moment to occur in a city of 8.5 million was baffling to me.
And yet these moments kept repeating themselves.
That night, at a jazz concert near Lincoln Center, a stranger told me his life story and invited me to a friend’s dinner party in Brooklyn the next day. Nearby, a college student and a retired man who had never met were learning the tango together.
On a Saturday morning in Soho, a shopkeeper walked up to me and smoothed out a wrinkle in my shirt without a word of warning or a “May I?”, something even my close friends might never think to do.
The clincher was a moment at The Central Bar, an Irish pub near NYU. I’d stopped in to catch the Oregon football game, and I wasn’t surprised to find a small group of men in the neighboring booth rooting loudly for the opposition. When they found out I was an Oregon fan, they tossed a little bit of good-natured heckling my way. But after a tense moment on the field and a bad play on my team’s part, I was stunned when a couple of them made a conciliatory “O” with their hands and offered to buy me a beer.
I’d been in New York for three days, and I had to admit that so far I felt neither lonely nor overwhelmed by crowds. (Granted, I may have felt differently had I ventured into Times Square.) In this place that I always assumed was its own ungovernable living organism, I found that I could completely control my social experience by deciding where, when, and how I traveled. During the day, I chose to visit tourist haunts early in the morning and at lunchtime; I felt as if I had whole sections of Central Park and the Met to myself. Later, I gravitated toward popular nightlife neighborhoods, and the teeming sidewalks insulated me from loneliness and danger.
One night, I grabbed dinner with a friend who said she’d long ago abandoned her fear of dining out alone. Now, I could see why: in most restaurants, the unrelenting energy (and yes, friendliness!) will seep into your skin, dissolving your misgivings in a matter of minutes.
Why is it that being alone in New York City feels so right, when elsewhere people seem to run in pairs or not at all? On my last night here, I went out solo to Highlands in the West Village and mulled the question over.
I thought of all the people I knew, scattered across the country and the world. For the most part, those who now live in small towns are married, and they moved there because they were offered specific jobs. In contrast, most of those who now live in cities moved there before they’d found work or love.
Most of my city friends arrived in their respective cities as islands, single and without many connections. With time, they all found work and friends. Many of them found partners and got married, too; many more still thrive as singletons, both socially and professionally. While in some places life as an unmarried 30-year-old may be difficult–Utah, Idaho, parts of Colorado–it certainly isn’t in New York City. Statistics show that 42 percent of women and 47 percent of men here have never been married. Furthermore, New Yorkers are among the least likely to get married by age 26.
If you’re single in New York, you’re in good company. If you’re dining alone in a restaurant on a Tuesday night, you are far from the only one. If you’re attending a free jazz concert by yourself, there’s a 99.9 percent chance you’ll find company in someone else who’s doing the same thing.
I’d been tricked into believing the big city was full of isolated islands, but I was only half right. New York is, indeed, full of islands, so many that they form an amicable archipelago too large even for Dubai’s developers to duplicate. New York is a big city that’s really just a giant collection of small towns, each one filled with people who are perfectly content to coexist alone together.
Now, when I return to the memory of that soulful, sweaty man on the Subway platform in Queens, I laugh to myself. If he could convince a cynic like me that he was lonely, I guess he really is The Great Pretender.