She sat under the Oaks in Union Square, pondering the direction her night would take. It was the last one. Her last night as a resident. It was as if she looked back at a dream seven, no 27, years in the making. Her dream of surviving and thriving in the Big Apple. A city that showed no mercy to the weary. A city that swallowed tourists and spat them back out. A city she would always love.
Thoughts of sadness, loneliness and regret started to consume her. She was at risk of spiraling down, of spending the evening wallowing in self-pity and sorrow.
Then the acorns started to fall. One by one they bounced off her head to the pavement below. She looked around…no one else seemed afflicted, nor to even notice what befell her. Sitting atop the bench now posed a hazard. Beware of falling acorns…don’t look up, you’ll get one in the eye.
It was all she needed…she snapped out of it. A smile crept in. Then she was off.
Each night she crossed back across the bridge. It was a vivid reminder that her days were spent on an island, a mere visitor to the greatest city of them all. A momentary glance from the Brooklyn Bridge to Lady Liberty inspired the strength she would need to do it again tomorrow.
Once home, she sat in solitude on the roof of a her three-story building, a bottle of wine at her side. She watched the city turn its lights on. Apartment by apartment the night took shape. It was time again for drum practice two buildings down. Airplanes flew low overhead, making their ways to LaGuardia or JFK, she couldn’t tell which, nor did she care much. Pockets of light erupted from all angles, but mostly the night stayed black. Black and quiet. From her vantage point only backs of the buildings were visible — the underbellies — and life appeared different here. Vulnerable somehow. Soon without realizing when, the sun was gone. An unseen observer, she sat a moment longer and left.
“Don’t worry if you smell anything funky…it’s just the dead, rotting mice in the walls,” he said as she picked up the keys on day one. “OK, thanks,” she replied in a tone that belied her shaken confidence.
She found herself in a foreign land…or so it seemed. The smells were different; they were stronger. Incense filled the air; it was inescapable. The sounds were different. Either she now had a gorilla living upstairs or a guy who squashed roaches with each heavy step, maybe both. The people — their attitudes — were different. They epitomized the word “chill.” Heck, they probably invented its colloquial meaning. Beards were way in. So much so, she noted an article about how razor sales were down in the outer boroughs. It would take time to acclimate.
It is not often easily understood how a city of 8 million people can also be a city of loneliness. But it’s true. In this new life she felt even more alone. Alone, but optimistic.
At night she lay awake, willing herself to sleep by pretending the street noise was from a complimentary Brookstone sound machine. She thought “what am I doing here?” The tightness in her chest was unfamiliar. It was fear and anxiety mixed with curiosity and excitement, but she liked it. She was out of her element and recognized, now, that it was good for her. At the very least it made her feel something deeply…what, exactly, she couldn’t yet be sure.
One thing was clear: it was a city of artists. For artists. The air was thick with creativity. Anyone could see it. It was evident in the shops, on the sidewalks, from conversations overheard one bar stool down. Artists of all kinds — musicians, writers, filmmakers, actors, painters — offered support and encouragement to one another, lending an ear whenever necessary. Even the bankers, social workers and dentists-by-day come back over the bridge, shed their second skins, and pull out their artistic weapons of choice.
Sitting with her back against the wall, pillows propped up to keep the position sustainable, she pondered this new life. She took note of the idiosyncrasies that made Brooklyn home — the incense, the noise, the creativity, the dead mice.
After procuring the spot — a four-seater facing the window — she sits solitary, nibbling a croissant that fails to satisfy. Despite it, she feels relaxed; refreshed; even excited for where the day will take her. One iced coffee quickly downed, she orders another. With time to kill she takes notes, skims a pamphlet and pauses to relish this simple moment to herself. Her gaze wanders outside.
An unlucky barista mans the sidewalk cart filled with gelato, ice-cold beverages and a carafe that advertises watered down Crystal Light as “Homemade Lemonade.” The owner steps outside for a smoke. He points, says something to the fresh-faced barista, and soon the young man squirts and squeegees the plastic counter top until any fingerprints are gone.
Most passersby continue on, not giving the small café cart a second glance. A few, however, stop for a treat and some relief from the heat. She observes it all silently from behind the glass, unnoticed.
The couple, with antique bike in tow, choose a can of Coke. The girl stands smiling, a wreath of bright-pink daisies rests atop her mane. The boy orders. His loose sleeveless tank looks as if it could use a wash — hair peeks out from all sides. The two struggle at the straw wrapper, then wave a friendly goodbye to the barista.
He stands and waits patiently behind the counter. She can tell he, too, is a seasoned observer.
Ms. Sourpuss steps up. She nods to the water bin and inquires, “how much?” Exaggerated distaste flashes across her face as she walks away.
A family of four — Italian — stops. Each one grabs at something different. For a second she thinks she’s been caught spying, but no. The daughter simply checks her own reflection, bumps her ponytail and then looks away satisfied. Mom requests a cup of ice for her orange-flavored San Pellegrino and lets her husband pay for their loot.
She wasn’t fooled…it’s not the city that never sleeps. It’s just a city where at least someone is always up. In reality it seems as though most people sleep days away, leaving nights for pitter-pattering. And that hardly counts as never sleeping, if you ask her.
The city does have a quiet place, however. In summer, as the sunlight first hints arrival from beyond the East River, that’s when you’ll find it…the quiet place. In winter, there’s no time to wait for the sun, but the hour remains the same.
An occasional errand or obligation makes her part of it. A secret club of New Yorkers start their days here. Nudging the city awake, some are still half asleep as they wash windows, bake delectables, and walk dogs of all sizes…all the while enjoying a little peace — because even one hour more and the real buzzing begins.
An outsider might witness this place and mistake it for full speed, or at least close to it. But locals know better — she knows better. The only one pausing to observe, she tiptoes on freshly rinsed sidewalks and breathes in morning air not yet polluted by cigarette smoke. A mere two or three customers await cups at Starbucks (soon enough the line will end out the door).
To her the streets are empty. She almost tingles with excitement at the rare scene surrounding her. No one else seems to recognize it. Perhaps they’re all used to it now. Not knowing any better, they start each day like the one before…with blinders on. Blinders that lead them to their destinations without bumping into, tripping on or even witnessing anything. It’s easy to forget the wonder of the mundane and the wonder of what surrounds us always. No two mornings are ever exactly the same in reality, but as memories, days blend together.
Maybe she’ll find this quiet place again someday. In the meantime, she’ll take her own blinders off.