NYC is so puzzling to me sometimes. It’s the city that never sleeps, where on the same streets, some people wear suits and ties on their way to work and others wear tatters, asking hopefully for some spare change. People are always so busy, and yet the oddest connections happen. The other day, I was walking through Times Square for the first time in ever (and will not be doing so again for a very, very long time) - and I ran into a guy that I would say ‘hi’ to everyday for the past year in Ithaca. We were acquaintances at best, had a few mutual friends, but every Monday through Friday, he would sit in the same hallway that I would walk to class in. I saw my other friend three separate times at the same place in one week, after we had unsuccessfully tried to make plans. My best friend met something scarily close to a soulmate while pseudo-wingmanning for me last weekend. But crazy things like that have been happening everyday lately…and I’ve been musing about one instance in particular.
I’ve been reading a book called “The Crisis Caravan” about the dark side and consequences of international charity and aid organizations, and last week, a man at my subway stop struck up a conversation with me about it. We ended up taking the same train all the way to East Village, and our conversation shifted from international aid and intervention to grassroots activism to education reform and dreams (he’s running a non-profit called the Dream Team, whose goal is to make everyone ‘brave’ enough to dream, and then to make the dreams come true). When he left, he said that New York can sometimes lack a personal connection because people don’t talk to each other.
More often than not, I don’t talk to people. I don’t trust people on the subway, on the bus, in the park, at a bar. I choose to look straight ahead, eyes focused on where I need to go, indifference (and even cold aloofness) as security - and I know that this is safe and this is wise. I chose to speak with the man that I met in the subway because I felt safe in a public place in a safe neighborhood that I knew well, with lots of people around. But as a woman in the kind of world we live in, this isn’t always the case. There will always be catcalls and vulgar comments, unwelcome advances and glances.
The man on the train, who wants to ‘change the world’ by encouraging others to dream, told me that I needed to break the rules and do what made me happy. I couldn’t help but think (cynically) that this is very easy for him to say, as a white male who grew up and continues to live on the UWS, who can afford to run a non-profit as a full-time job, who can go to Third world countries and advocate for western involvement without feeling like some new reincarnation of colonialism. His experience is such that he has the privilege to take the risk to dream, to not only hold onto his idealism, but then peddle it to others. It is easy for him to approach people that he sees in a subway station. He’s probably not fearful to respond when strange people he doesn’t know start talking to him.
“Don’t talk to strangers.” It’s the first rule that you learn when you enter the world beyond the safety of what your home community can provide for you. This is what I struggle with often - how do you balance idealism about human connection with the harsh realities of what could be and what might happen? And maybe this is my dream - that one day, my daughter or any other person for that matter, will be able to feel human connection, to be able to strike up a conversation or approach someone without fear.