Tonight I heard an early music concert at St. Mary’s Church in the center of Manhattan. It was all polyphony and exquisite arrangements, the pulpit lit only by candles and whatever light managed to stream through the towering stained glass windows. As a hush fell over the crowd and we waited for the first lofty notes, I swear a small fistfight broke out in front of me. Why? People of New York—why? The hell is going on here?
And don’t be fooled by gender assumptions, these were two women. The first vaulted across the dim, now shattered, silence a stern “Get your HANDS off my BAG”. The second screeched something back that I did not catch. The exchange, however indecipherable, continued, heightened, escalated, rolled to a breaking point, resulted in removal. It was tense, hardcore, and frankly nonsense. Here we are, about to listen to some of the most extraordinary music of the 17th century, and people can’t hold it for even a minute.
I love this town but I hate this stuff, each and every angry interaction that is so much a part of living cheek to jowl, day after day, week after week. I sat down alone tonight in the center of a beautiful space, utterly hungry to be transfixed by the power of the human voice and the haunting reverie of its arrangement. Before 20 seconds were up, I was returned to the worst of our lives—the propensity for petty exchange, the readiness to be wronged. Damn.
But you know, I’m no different. The pressure and pound of this place has been bleeding into my veins of late. I see fistfights in my job now, either in my classroom or elsewhere in the school. Last night I went out with a bunch of close friends from my days in Jakarta, not a city known for its light touch. I remembered thinking as I left Jakarta for New York in 2008 that my new city would be a cakewalk because, hey, Jakarta.
Not so. New York, for all its impossibility of housing and trenchant kill when it comes to getting around, is harder. Everything is twenty times more expensive and there’s twenty times less of it. My friends laughed when I told them that my first utterance the other morning had been to a person on the subway and it was, literally, “Fuck you motherfucker.” Who is that? Who have I become? They shook their heads. Yeah, they said. It’s just what this place does to you.
Maybe what this place does to me is not what I want to do to me. I’m running more, escaping more, going away more, listening more, disappearing more. I am feeling my heart beat in my one thin chest more. I see fistfights more and, despite the fact that I’m the daughter of a man with two detached retinas—the product of his own fighting days—I am shirking away. I like to be small. I prefer peace to war. I am grateful for night and the heavy weight of blankets, the silence of an empty street. When I dream, I see the ocean. But when I wake, I can hardly remember.