New York is the holy city of ambition, some might also argue it is the mecca of waste – inevitable with millions of people living on one very small island. Living in New York comes with many benefits. Nearly everywhere I go, I am not the only person of color in the room. I am also a very fast walker. I out-walk my six-foot tall husband. Often, I love New York’s vitality, the warm pulse that surrounds me. And often, I appreciate its extremes, for on this small island, one cannot escape the cruelty of this city. The beauty is framed by injustice, so it is impossible to enjoy the fruits without considering the human cost.
It is a city that hardens people, even the most sensitive. The high cost of living diminishes generosity. The skyscrapers obscure signs of other forms of non-human life, a sign of the radical centering of the human desires to subdue and destroy wildness, messiness, diversity. Living in a city so congested, vibrant, alluring, and concealing is challenging for an introvert. Men catcall women. People treat the sidewalks like their own personal landfills (remember: mecca of waste.) Cabs dart in front of pedestrians and vice versa. Construction workers jackhammer sidewalks as mothers push strollers only a few feet away. There are days when it feels as though the entire city is screaming: GET OUT. WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE. As a measure of protection, sensitivity is better unfurled at home.
But then again, there is beauty in proximity. In a few weeks, most likely, New York will no longer be my home. In the light of its near ending, I see this period and this place more forgivingly. Harshness exists alongside rawness, which exists alongside compassion, too. As I walk through the West Village, I see a homeless man hold the door for every woman who walks into the coffee shop. I see a construction worker who stops traffic for a mother and her children. I see a younger woman who helps give an older woman directions on the subway. I see commuters stop in their tracks in Grand Central to listen, for a few minutes, to a string quartet playing during rush hour.
Most New Yorkers espouse the city’s toughness because it says something about their own strength. It is true that we walk fast. It is true that we know the subway lines like the lines of our own palms. We rightfully bemoan the price of, well, everything consumable. To focus unduly on the hard elements of life here, however, grants false permission to abandon virtue that would make the city a more loving place.
As I walked into the train station one evening, I walked past a woman washing the windows of the doors. As I pulled the door next to the one she was cleaning, I said, “I’m sorry, please excuse me.” She stopped working and turned to me, “Honey. No one has said that to me today, and I have been working here for hours. Thank you. One woman just pushed straight past me. I was like, ‘Hello?? I am a person here!'” We continued to talk for a few minutes. It was a brief interaction, but the mutual recognition of something more important: how much ordinary kindness and consideration can matter, on both sides, the one who offers and the one who receives, for by the very fact that we live so close to one another, this sort of exchange is ongoing.
Despite the city’s forces of alienation, relationality is graspable. It, like the piles of trash, abounds. Ordinary kindness is a practice of reverence, of noticing the sacred stitched within the mundane, possible even in places like New York. Wendell Berry says, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.” The forlorn places and practices, in cities and within ourselves, are not obsolete; they can be dusted off. To consecrate a place like New York or a practice like this, too, is easier than one might imagine. It only requires your own softening.