It hasn’t always been so. I commuted to school on the New York subway during rush hour throughout my teens; I don’t remember it bothering me a bit. One summer I held a series of jobs handing out employment agency flyers on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, opposite the Public Library. Now that’s a place for throngs. And after I got my driver’s license, I’d sometimes drive into Manhattan during the morning rush, savoring the very adult (to my mind then) experience of being stuck in traffic.
But I’ve changed. Probably I’ve lived too long away from big cities. I don’t like walking close up behind people. I like to walk fast, which is itself a city thing, but difficult to do in a throng. Victor has long made fun of my “New York walk,” which kicks in when I feel too pressed in by others. I’ll get my legs pumping and dart in and out of the mass of pedestrians, angling for a clear path; an open vista.
A throng is more than simply a crowd. It is a swarm—a mob with a direction. You feel yourself to be a tiny droplet in the great wave. Or—if the throng is approaching from the opposite direction—you feel yourself to be in danger of submersion. As if you could be forced to go somewhere you don’t want to.
It’s no problem, I suppose, if you have nowhere to be, like my teenage self, sitting in rush hour traffic on a Tuesday morning. But if you do have a destination, particularly if you’re late, then it can be unpleasantly surreal. The whole world is in your way, and no matter how many times you say, “Excuse me,” other people remain impenetrable obstacles. The goal—whether it’s a movie theater, a restroom, or your bedroom at home—comes to seem both desperately important and nightmarishly unreachable.
Filed in: Thinking