Sweat and the City
This past weekend, I watched a number of my neighbors pack things — coolers, oars, inflatable toys, children — into their family-sized vehicles and drive off towards the promise of an extended Fourth of July vacation. If the traffic constipating the streets of Lower Manhattan was any indication, they had plenty of company.
For almost every one of the twelve summers I’ve lived in New York, I’ve observed this ritual with equal parts envy and relief. My neighbors are escaping, yes, but so am I. I’m escaping to a smaller town where it’s easier to get a haircut, a movie ticket, and a dinner reservation, all in the same evening, and I don’t have to endure road rage and vengeful airline employees in the process.
My relationship with New York has always been a love-hate affair, as I suppose anyone’s is with a place that deposits eight million people on top of one another and demands that we both get along with and out-perform each other while waiting for our singular talents to be recognized and rewarded. The relationship can’t help but be a bit fraught.
Several years ago, while we were standing in line at a museum, a friend visiting from suburban Maryland looked around and remarked, “people here don’t know how to just be.” As I’m allergic to pronouncements that resemble those issued at the beginning of a yoga class, I dismissed this with an inward eye roll. I knew damn well that my friend was right, and also that the only people qualified to comment on our inability to achieve inner peace were, well, us. Coming from a Maryland day-tripper, the remark was a smug insult. Coming from a New Yorker, it was simply a fact, just like saying that the 14th Street L station smells like a urinal in hell, or that navigating Midtown sidewalks is like driving on I-95.
Which brings me back to our current season. It’s not so much that we learn how to “just be” in the summer; it’s more that we succumb — to stultifying humidity, to the rank hot breath of the subway, to the knowledge that moving faster carries greater risk to personal sanity or the fabric of one’s clothing. So we slow down a little and retreat to our air-conditioned corners to check the ferry schedule to Governors Island, or contemplate renting a ZipCar to drive to the Far Rockaways. Whether we go is irrelevant; just knowing such places are accessible, and that we are free to meander to them if we choose, is sufficient.
“Meander” is a word that sums up why my love-hate of New York mellows to love-easily tolerate during the summer. In any other season, meandering is a luxury available only to those outside of the five-borough region; it’s what inhabitants of bucolic places do when they want to put one foot in front of the other. But everything about New York in the heat invites meandering — women’s footwear alone practically demands it. Meandering is what we can do on strangely spacious sidewalks on our way to movie theaters that are only half-full on a Saturday night. After the movie is over, we meander to a half-empty bar and nurse cold drinks in the soft night air, until it’s time to meander home, perhaps on the freshly tanned arm of a new friend.
It’s not that the living is easy, exactly. It’s that it’s more basic, more entropic, more encouraging of simple pleasures. There’s the air conditioning that rushes out to lick your ankles as you walk by a store with its doors left carelessly open, or the DayGlo shaved ice cone from the cart with the umbrella. In the moment when that ice chills your throat, you don’t care if its syrup contains chemicals that will probably cause your unborn children to grow gills; nothing matters when you feel so effortlessly, childishly satisfied.
As I experience these things, I know that somewhere, my neighbors are sitting by a lake or lying on a beach, thanking some higher power for liberating them from our concrete hot house. They sigh with relief, breathing in air that smells like pine needles or Coppertone instead of ripe garbage and blooming B.O. They’ve won the life-boat lottery, and can watch from a safe distance as the rest of us ride a doomed ship down to its watery grave.
And to some degree, I do envy their remove. But I also feel sorry for them. Because eventually, they have to come back. On the occasions I’ve left the city during the summer, I’ve discovered just how hard it is to return to a place that not only doesn’t miss you in your absence, but also greets you with the reminder that it’s so much gentler everywhere else. Whereas, if you remain, you do so with that knowledge that, stink and humidity aside, this is as easy as it gets in the city. New York has its own strange rewards for those of us who stay put; as with anything else here, it’s just up to us to know where to look.