Fumbling Toward Happiness

New York City at nightThe morning I moved into my current apartment, I awoke at my West Village sublet and wandered into the kitchen to make tea. As I gazed out the window, I saw a nude guy casually meandering around his roof deck, mere yards from my perch.

As if that weren’t enough bare-assed excitement, an hour later, while settling into my new digs, I peered out my living room window, stared across the street and saw another man, naked as a newborn, standing in front of his high-rise apartment’s floor-to-ceiling window, hands on hips, calmly surveying the city below.

I suffered a pang of “What the hell does it mean when your moving day is filled with naked strangers?” existential upset.

But I had to concede, kooky things just seem to happen when you’re living in a city. Maybe multiple naked man sightings don’t happen OFTEN, but when you’re crushed into a city along with 8.3 million other folks, weird stuff just seems to occur. It’s expected really. And sometimes, you realize you’re the person being weird, and that’s ok, too.

My new apartment happens to be on the 37th floor, and the first time I set foot in it, I felt a flutter of anxiety. Sure, the views rocked, but I was so high above and so far removed from the living, pulsing Manhattan down below. I feared that from this height, I’d inherently miss a fundamental connection, lack a tangible grasp on the earth.

It took some reflection to realize that perhaps in a city as filled to bursting as New York, a haven in the sky might be the perfect antidote to the daily crowd swell. At this height, only the loudest sirens permeate my space: gone are the shouts of drunks at 2 a.m., the cries of street touts selling t-shirts and DVDs, car stereos blasting thumping bass. Here instead I have spread before me swaths of twinkling lights from buildings great and small, views of the Hudson River and occasional passing cruise ships, even glimpses of rolling green hills in the New Jersey distance.

Unexpectedly, while it’s an escape from the up-close urban mayhem, I’ve realized that the apartment also grants me a chance to literally stare into the city — or at least into some of the city’s highest dwellings. Staring out my windows at night is quite like being dropped into the heart of a Richard Scarry children’s book, the ones where all the city buildings were drawn to include endless teeny tiny windows into which you could inspect details of apartments drawn with fastidious precision.

I can see into buildings’ windows with clarity that would no doubt be alarming to said buildings’ residents. While I’m no voyeur, peeking into the living space of so many others is comforting. I don’t know who they are and I never will, but I do know they have couches and candles and hang Christmas lights, just like I do, and to actually see this, I feel less alone.

That’s the counter-intuitive thing about living in a gigantic, people-filled city. It has the ability to morph into the loneliest place on earth. To be constantly, crushingly surrounded by all of these lives, all of this humanity whom you do not know, whom you cannot touch, can be so very isolating.

And yet. There is this proximity.

Spend a day living in this city, any given day, and you will cross paths with, stare at, be stared at, bump into, be frustrated by, rush past, be curious about, feel sorry for, and admire so many people.

Ride the subway during rush hour. Better yet, ride the subway in the summer during rush hour. Your bare arm is bound to touch someone else’s bare arm, damp from sweat. And the subway car probably smells like body odor. Or pee. Or somebody’s perfume overdose.

Every day in a city, we’re in the thick of the human experience. The trick is realizing it. The hard part is realizing it’s beautiful.

When you’re able to look around with compassion in the midst of proximity’s chaos, you realize we’re all in this life together. We’re all quite similar, really. At the end of the day we’re striving to be happy — our individual definitions of happy. Together, we’re the people living in the apartments I see from a distance, the subway riders, the unabashed naked men, myself. Together, in this big crazy city, I believe, we’re fumbling toward happiness.

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