“Thank you!” says the man who smiled back at me from under his thick lumbersexual beard, “People don’t smile in this city anymore. I lived here 10 years ago and I’ve just come back from Texas and it’s completely different — unfriendlier.”
His name was Bret, we were on a street corner in Williamsburg.
There is nothing new under the sun and there is nothing new about New York. Everything has already been written about this city before. Including that sentence.
An older writer once told me, “take off your headphones. If you want to report the world, be in it.” knowing it was the one thing I didn’t want to hear. It’s the one piece of practical writing advice that stuck.
I only had a month in New York.
Instead of trying to find a story for myself in these anxiety ridden streets, I vow to smile at everyone I make eye contact with.
In a city infamous for its resting bitch face and general aloofness, many just ignore me entirely. Ignorant as only an immigrant can be, I didn’t grasp that in New York strangers only smile when they want one of three things: your wallet, your custom, or sex. Or narcotics.
Still, you might get the tired half smile, a full sunshine beam, a knowing smirk, a wistful glance, a friendly nod with closed lips. Even when you’re a diminutive blonde woman with steel-framed glasses, there’s the odd side-eyed glance and increased pace.
Some, however, some do that wonderfully American thing and start up a conversation with you, a stranger.
There’s the intense-eyed man who bulldozes me with his paintings of the city’s sewer covers. Since an ex-boyfriend pointed out their mundane charm and uniqueness, my camera roll has been full of photos of sewer caps from around the world. Paul (the painter’s name was Paul) holds up a canvas of a cover from Central Park. The word “creation” hovers above impressionist blobs of flowers. For 20 years he’s been tracing the manhole covers of the city and colouring them with paints and pastels. “I sell them online. Some go for as much as three grand.” I could only afford a lowly $20 for a coaster.
There’s the man with sunglasses on the G train who notices that I like to read, and uses the opportunity to tell me about his autobiography. He shows me the cover on his phone with pride; After 25 Years of Smoking Crack, How You Like Me Now. “Hit me up on Facebook, I’d love to have your feedback.” An emaciated version of his face looks up at me. The book is available at Barnes and Nobel.
There’s the scrap of black poodle pulling along a dainty older woman. Her name was Lady (the dog’s) and she had just given birth to three teeny tiny puppies. The dainty woman asked me if I’d like to see them. Her Upper West Side apartment smelt like warmth and laundry and a teeny tiny ball of black fluff called Prince peed in my hand.
There’s the man in the beaten leather jacket who comes into a pizza bar to deliver a well-worn speech about his time in Vietnam. “My whole platoon was completely wiped out except for three or four guys. Uh… anything you can spare, ladies and gentlemen, I’d be most grateful. I’m sorry to be bothering you.” He had the ribbons of medals that seemed to prove it. I was new to the city and emptied my purse into his hand. His eyes couldn’t meet mine.
There’s the lanky man on the platform with the Baoding balls who tells me about how rolling them in his palm cleanses his meridians, and eventually, the energy fields of the entire universe. I find their incessant dinging as irritating as the incessantly delayed F train. I ask if I can have a go. I don’t drop them, and they feel pleasantly smooth and weighty. My energy field remains unaltered.
There’s the young mother in Prospect Park who stops to discuss the various household items one could use to slide down a muddy hill: trashcan lids, baking trays, plastic bags. Her kids were two and five, and raced around looking like an advert for laundry detergent. “Next time, I’ll bring a bucket.”
There’s the hairy man who sings as he follows me down the tunnelled walkway from the E at Court Square. He’s carrying an ironing board. I make sure we sit in the same carriage and wait for him to say something. Two stops of smiling later I ask what he’s doing with a miniature ironing board (it was miniature). “I’m method acting for a play,” he replies, pleasantly surprised by my accent. His name is Alex. “I hope I didn’t startle you by singing back there.” He didn’t. He was a singer-songwriter and burgeoning theatre actor. We get a drink.
People, like sewer covers, often go unnoticed. There’s a reason that Humans of New York hits us right in the feels; when you let a stranger’s story come to you, the chaos of existence slows down for a second, to register our golden kinship.
It’s a city of 8.6 million stories. Take off your headphones, turn up the corners of your mouth, and let them come to you. Among the kombucha tastings, the nameless pop-up bars, the Wifi hotspots, the exorbitant rent, the AirBnb key lock boxes, the cocaine covered toilet paper holders, the dying bookstores, the uncollected trash, the indefinable sidewalk stains, there are podcasts waiting to be made, novels waiting to be written, Moth essays waiting to be spoken.