At 6:45 on Saturday evening at the Starbucks on the corner of 17th Street and Broadway, I got a seat. This may not seem like a monumental event, but it really was. This wasn’t a stool at a communal table, but a small, faux-marble table of my very own on a banquette facing the corner. The sunny, 80° day brought the city outdoors, and it seemed the entirety of humanity was parading just for me. I marveled at the fact that three more tables opened up after I shifted to mine. This never happens in any of the three Starbucks coffee houses in Union Square.
New York is a crowded place. There are over 8 million people here. While it’s true that people with means flee to the Hamptons or some other seaside retreat during summer weekends, the tourists make up for their absence. On any Saturday, Union Square is a chore to traverse. People come to abrupt stops in the middle of the walkway and consider a green market stall instead of walking up to it. Others amble about on mobile devices, blind to their surroundings as they cut into people’s paths, bump people in front of them, and walk in terribly slow motion while 4 million people try to squeeze by. Then there are people who seem to need to use a camera lens to actually see the city. They stop abruptly, too, but don’t stop there. The camera people will often try to clear enough sidewalk to fiddle with their cameras for about 2 minutes before actually snapping the photo. When they go home and complain about rude New Yorkers, they aren’t taking into account the fact that the New Yorkers are quite nice when not delayed on their journey from point A to point B for the 27th time so the tourist can have a photo of Warhol (which may be better represented in an affordable postcard).
Freedom from the crushing hordes is a bit of a luxury in NYC. Most of us don’t have cars or soundproof walls/ceilings/floors. My houseguests have woken up singing the songs that people sang badly the night before in the karaoke place around the corner. When we don’t react to people freaking out on the subway or ranting on a street corner, it’s because we’ve learned to look without seeming to look. We try not to respond, because we know we wouldn’t want people gaping at us while we’re caught dabbing our eyes over a good book or an emotional crisis. (I sometimes break this rule by slipping a travel pack of Kleenex to criers. The city’s a dirty place, and it’s a bad idea to use a sleeve or a hand that’s just touched the subway pole. Ew.)
In order to keep our sanity, we all make accommodations. When we have a long subway ride, we learn tricks for figuring out exactly where the subway doors will be so we can play musical chairs and sit the whole way. I bring a book or crochet project with me to work and leave early so I can sit the whole way and not be crushed by the masses of people on the express train to Manhattan. I also wear noise-cancelling headphones that take the edge off leaky headphones and annoying talkers. I plan my errands to avoid long lines and crowded stores. (I sometimes go out of my way because one Trader Joe’s is less crowded than another. I will absolutely not divulge which one. Don’t ask.)
I don’t realize how accustomed I’ve become to living in close quarters with millions of people until I return to the Midwest. I love the Midwest for many reasons, but huge grocery stores now rankle me. The aisles are wide enough for 2 shopping carts, and there’s an entire, 40-foot, 7-shelf aisle with just water. The amount of choice and space renders me agoraphobic.
When I managed to get the small table at Starbucks this Saturday, I couldn’t believe my luck. With my back against the wall, I ceased to be part of the bustle. People of a huge array of languages, shapes, and dispositions passed by the corner. The green market stall owners loaded their trucks and headed north. Star-struck tourists snapped a million photos (without getting in my way). I saw it all without obstructing someone’s view or path, without balancing my bag and crochet project on my lap, and without needing to use my city-learned tricks to maintain my sanity. In short, I stepped out of the tapestry so I could better observe and appreciate it. That half-hour of peace in the midst of a maelstrom recharged my batteries and reinforced my gooey, sickly-sweet love for New York City.