Let me tell you a not-so-secret factoid about myself.
I, Britney Fitzgerald, despise small perpetual noises—particularly when I’m writing or reading. My grievance can be broken down most accurately into two categories: the tolerable and the intolerable.
What are the worst perpetuators of this borderline OCD behavior, you might ask? The ultimate unbearable sounds include lip-smacking and gum popping, which, by the way, are popular pastimes on all of New York City’s public transportation systems.
Thus, the headphones.
They save my sanity, and often act as a barrier toward unwanted attention. Sometimes at night I’ll walk home with ear buds in and music off, simply so I don’t have to engage in conversation with the local club hoppers.
I realize this makes me sound a tiny bit crazy, and quite a bit jaded. But the truth of the matter is, I love people and I engage with others on and off the clock. So my commute is often the only hour in each day where I will simply sit.
But all of the above justifications do not dissuade me from believing that we, as human beings, love (or need?) the opportunity to connect. Herman Melville once wrote, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”
So when a woman from New Orleans sat down beside me on the train, looking utterly lost, I pulled my headphones out of my ears…just in case.
She took the bait, and asked how to get to the World Trade Center. I then learned about her home, her kids, and why she was in New York. Suddenly the subway didn’t just seem like a breeding ground for rats and germs, but instead a haven for thousands of people with thousands of stories, whooshing through tunnels underground—and we were all en route to our next adventure.
For me, that involved meeting someone for coffee near Chelsea Market. I was early, so I stepped in line and began scoping out the menu. “Have you been here before?” a woman behind me asked, all grins.
She was excited because she was on a self-guided tour of the “best coffee places” in New York. She lived in Westport, but her parents were moving to SoHo, and did I want a bite of her maple cookie? And no, she’d never heard of the Mudtruck but yes, she’d check it out… and so on.
There were conversations on the Highline, at dinner, over cocktails. There were conversations after a movie, at a wine bar, in a margarita joint off Saint Mark's. There were even conversations with my cab driver from South Africa as we listened to the radio at 3AM.
A local station was discussing the death of Nelson Mandela, so I asked him to tell me his thoughts on the former president’s passing. The cabbie explained his country’s history in clipped English and said that; “We all need a lit-tle bit of grace in our hearts. Do you know? We need grace is our hearts…”
I smiled from the backseat as we sped over the Queensboro Bridge, with the lights of midtown dancing in the rearview mirror. The window was slightly cracked; it finally smelled like snow.
And I felt completely infatuated with the captivating inhabitants of our city, all over again.