Shared New York
In marble-floored buildings (that look like the other marble-floored buildings) there are iPods and striped shirts and shiny shoes and BlackBerrys -- and elevators full of identical striped shirts personified with their shiny shoes and iPods and BlackBerrys. Heads down. Scroll wheels clicking. Oblivious to anything but tiny letters and tinny sound. (Tip: They're the assholes in the packed theaters who check their messages on bright white screens during Jennifer Hudson's torch song in "Dreamgirls.")
Generic can be mistaken for connection ("OHMIGOD, I love your baaaaag. Wheredjyou gehtitttt? I totally have the same oonnnnne.") when what we really should be looking for are similarities that makes us feel less alone here. Like mass-produced bottled water, for example. Follow:
Last summer, during sticky heat and train delays, the V finally came down the pike in midtown, and every last soul was determined to take a deep breath and squeeze his or her body through the closing doors, barking conductor be damned. I had just gone to the gym, making the air and evening seem rather moist. I jammed my way into the car, and I saw a large black woman taking up three fourths of a two-seater bench by the door. I'm not a thin woman, I'm not a fragile woman, but I'm a small woman. So, like a human puzzle piece, I slid right in next to her, water bottle in hand.
I looked over at the woman's lap. She was holding an identical Poland Spring water, fingers interlaced over the grooves of the bottle, just like I was holding mine. She looked at my beverage, and she looked at me.
"Crowded in here," she said.
"Mmm-hmm," I emphatically agreed.
"Hot," she said.
"Yep," I said, half-smiling.
We rode a little bit longer in silence, and she looked over at me and nodded.
"I see you've got your water," she said.
"Oh, you've gotta have the water," I said, looking at her giving a nod.
"That's right," she said, my response having pleased her in some way.
And that was it. That was everything. That was the entire conversation. But somehow I remember that: A genial chat about shared subway misery predicated on a water bottle.
I like those moments in New York. You can have a conversation with a nosy woman in a bakery in Omaha, and that's nothing out of the ordinary, but in New York, out-of-the-blue conversations or meaningful exchanged glances across a sidewalk don't happen as much. So when they do, it means we've lifted our heads from our BlackBerrys and gossip magazines and traffic and the self-absorption, and it resonates. A genuine smile shared with a stranger means more here, even if there are millions of us milling around.