My iPhone was not alone.
It was one of many, a whole encircled school of them, lit up in photographic salute to the artists who had taken the old red phone box that our phones had recently relegated to the defunct and filled it with the unexpected, illuminated water and swimming live goldfish that had brought our nights together. Instead of doing whatever else it is that we normally do, we were there, briefly, together, experiencing the awe of the phone booth turned fish tank, mesmerized by fish and phone.
The phone booth-cum-aquarium parked on a corner of Grosvenor Square was just one of a number of light-centric public art installations drawing crowds on a recent winter night when I made the rounds of the Lumiere London light festival. Streets across central London were shut to cars for the four-night event organized by the Artichoke Trust, and pedestrians gathered together to look up and around at works that bent, swirled and projected color to transform public spaces, our public spaces. We were drawn to see the facades and squares of the city in a new neon light, and we were drawn to see them together.
That last word, together, was really the novel bit of the event for me. I was part of an us, a we. I was a Londoner, a person doing a thing in London with other people in London that was part of our collective experience of London. We were Londoners. We were Londoners experiencing London together, a phenomenon that happens so rarely in this city, as compared to my former home, New York. London is not a shared experience in the way New York demands it must be.
In New York, it’s hard not to be a New Yorker, whether you visit for three months or stay for twenty years. The term forces itself upon you. It rises up off the cement and out of the subway grates and sticks to you, no escaping it anymore than you can escape the call of the ambulance sirens or the waft of mingling rubbish and dog pee on a hot summer’s day. A kinetic thread flows up the tower-girded avenues, speeding past the intense yellow cabs, and wraps itself around you, pulling you with it, binding you to the grid. And then, once it has you, you can’t help but feel a tingle at the sight of the huddled skyline, knowing that it soars up out of that grid, in part, for you. You even come to breathe in tune with the rhythm of the traffic and stench, imbibing their crack, awaking to it, thriving zealously on it.
This tenacious sense of being a New Yorker seems to come from the fact that life in New York is life lived together. Perhaps it is the result of living Lego-like, so completely on top of one another, stuck together. Almost everything in New York is a shared experience. Whether in a basement or at a storefront, we do our laundry together, no pretense of hiding our stains from the would-be strangers-who-are-not-strangers because they are us, the New Yorkers. They cannot be strangers because their bedrooms stare into ours.
From the more mundane to the elitist, New Yorkers live their lives as the many parts of the same one. The crunch of our many feet dances with the sidewalk leaves in fall, and we weave our bodies into a pale blanket over Sheep’s Meadow at the first sign of Spring. After cycling our souls together on Saturdays, we flock to the same trendy new restaurants, which blink open and closed as fast as the shift of the Times Square billboard screens, and then spend our dinners mentioning them, critiquing them, to signal that we have been. The City carries us on a wave of enlightenment to Marina Abromović performances as well as to late-night taco trucks and Wafels & Dinges. Like specks in a Starry Night, we cling to one another, curling through the streets of New Amsterdam, waiting in line for the Rain Room and cronuts and Meat Packing clubs and boozy brunches and Alphabet City bars. It matters less what it was than that we were one of the ones who did it. We were part of a throbbing, reliable core that was there, together, making ourselves pieces of an electric-generating, infinite whole.
I miss it. I miss the certainty of knowing that, if I walked fast enough, I would be home. I miss the steadfast comfort of never being alone, knowing that there were fellow adventurers just a building or block away, and that we would go to Wes Anderson exhibitions and Smorgasburg and feel the subway arms of the City wrap round. I miss the satisfaction of knowing that I was a part of THE things to be seen and done, and that I would have the badge of honor to smile knowingly when my City brethren mentioned them in the years to come. I miss the manic, delusion-like rapture of knowing that the sun slanted off the Empire State Building, in part, for me, that I was a warrior of light, armed with glass and steel, surrounded by teeming streets filled with my tribe.
London is not a tribe. The English might say it’s too civilized for that. London, rather, is sharp and bleak like grey British wit. It’s hard not to feel alone, to be more aware of yourself than the presence of others, even when you hear the tap of their feet or see the backs of their coats winding to work in the shadow of pigeon-colored St. Paul’s.
Especially as a foreigner, walking the streets of London overhung with the architecture of Empire can feel like being shoved into the History of the World alone. The World is broken by neighborhoods, and unlike New York, not every neighborhood is my own. There is no grid to grab and pulse me forward, such arrow-like energy peters out and cannot survive in an unwelcoming maze of alleys and lanes. Garden gates are locked, shut to me, at every turn. The thread that divides East and West is more permanent, more imposing than the East River’s slippery segregation could ever try to be — it’s harder to build a bridge across an invisible divide. In London, there is also no whisper chain to tell me what to do with my weekends, where to find the feeling I belong. The warmth, belonging, here is subtle, hidden behind smog-stained facades. It requires a combination of happenstance and perseverance, like a chance encounter with a sidewalk whiff of curry, pursued to the source. I must find the source on my own. There is no one to whisper that in my ear.
I think this must be the reason the double decker buses are red, the telephone boxes are, were, red. They call to me, like beacons for the desperate, calling through the pavement and fog, yes, you are not alone, we are here, we are still a we, there is a community of people who take buses, make calls. We may not be as well-lit as Broadway, but find us, we’re here.
The search for the illusive, fog-obscured red pulse of London can sometimes lead me down an introspective dive. But reflection also leads me to something a friend said on my most recent trip back to New York. “Yes, she said, this life is great. We all know each other, live near each other. We all go out and eat Thai together. It’s just like college again. But this isn’t real life. Someday, I’ll need to grow up.”
In many ways, for many people, New York is like college part deux, a playpen for the semi-adult. It’s a double-edged sword, a place that simultaneously nurtures and infantilizes with its love. For me, New York was a place to grow, but not fully grow up. The easily-tailored suit of the New Yorker gave me the sense of confidence, the sense of belonging, the sense of being a part of it all, of having a place in the world, a place that was gritty, shiny and bright, that I needed to learn, to explore, and sometimes to dream. At the same time, the warm embrace of the City can strangle. Being in a bubble of people your own age, confronted with a never ending panoply of predictable living to do, spending it all because you’re unable to save, mattering things because that’s what people say you should do — it can start to hold you back. In New York, it can start to feel like there is no need, no time, to think about the World. You begin to believe that the world is all there, the whole world in the core of an apple. You can only do so much of THE thing to be done before, to grow further, you must ask what you want to do. For me, in New York, the options were limitless, but I rarely needed to make a choice because of the pull of the all-knowing crowd.
By contrast, London forces choice upon you, upon me, the foreigner. You don’t know what to do?, it says, well, too bad, grow up. London is a place where you must choose, a place to grow up. It doesn’t pamper you, doesn’t tell you its secrets. There is no instruction manual for being a Londoner. London doesn’t have a tacit, universal calendar full of arts festivals and ping-pong tournaments to which you are magnetically pulled. In London, they are there, but you must seek out what you want. It is a task that requires you to wander, on your own, to discover, to decide for yourself what it is you want to do today, and every day. And, so, in a way, London is a beautiful grown up place where you, where I, must confront the world, on my own, and make my own. I must make my way down the misty streets, propelled only by the energetic force of my own thoughts and beliefs, to be discovered along the way, with a purpose all my own.
And that was how I ended up standing in front of a phone box full of fish, feeling like a Londoner, on a Thursday night. There was no inevitable force that drew me along. I was drawn only by my own choice to attend an event I wanted to attend, without any promise of being able to smile knowingly about it in the years to come. I chose to be a Londoner that day, to make it my city, because that’s what I wanted to do. That choice led me to a shared experience of London, our city, with others who had also chosen to be Londoners that day. And so there we were, a group of us, Londoners by choice.