P.E.O.P.L.E. in the City

The French band Air has a song called “People in the City,” that describes the cadence and stricture of urban life. The lock-step rhythm mimics the plodding of commuters up the dirt-blackened stairs of the 14th street 6 train, and the chanted verses, “Moving, watching, working, sleeping, driving, walking, talking, smiling,” speak to the numbing repetition we experience as city dwellers. But the song opens up after the second chorus, giving a sense of the excitement at being surrounded by so many people, each with myriad webs of relationships, dreams, and frustrations. The song is really rather bad, but it speaks to an essential experience.

My own zombie shuffle was interrupted last Tuesday, when a beautiful young woman tapped me on the shoulder and gave me her business card, saying simply, “My number” (the Scribblerist is just as shocked as you, dear reader). I called her and we hung out and as it turns out, she’s pretty cool.

It’s got me thinking about how we move through the city as social creatures. In breaking the silent-but-iron-bound taboo about speaking to strangers, I feel this girl has given us both a small transcendence. Why shouldn’t we speak to people who seem interesting or give off a comforting energy? We’re all interdependent anyway, right? What stops us from acting like it?

When I first moved to New York from Missouriananois I made eye contact with everyone I passed on the street. It was an unconscious gesture, and the preface to a friendly Midwestern “hello!” I soon realized, however, that people were either uncomfortable with friendliness or worse, downright hostile. A few weeks later, I had mastered the art of moving down the street without noticing other people, Ipod strapped to my side like a gun, a private universe unto myself.

This is a horrible, lonely way to live life. Cities are supposed to be sites of great meeting, discussion, collaboration, and exchange. Wrong. New York is like a shattered pane of glass, with each shard representing a self-contained social group that thinks, incorrectly, it has no need for any of the other shards. New York is, indeed, diverse – a profusion of non-intersecting subcultures.

Crossing those lines is courageous; hence, my admiration for the subway girl (who shall remain unnamed for her protection). What prevents me from doing this more often? To start, I’m shy, but I’m sure there are deeper behavioral and social reasons, too. I’m afraid this post is a non-starter: I have no answers to the collective gag rule in New York.

Still, I can’t help but ponder. I’m imagining a group of people from all different sub-groups gathering just to talk about ideas…

Then again, perhaps Air could just rock us out with their mellow European psychedelica.

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