I guess I need that city life,
It sure has lots of style.
But pretty soon it wears me out,
And I have to think to smile.
Plunge into the middle of one of the world's largest cities when you're used to the pace of a sleepy little city in the American South, and you may not know what hit you. I didn't. For four straight days in New York City, I had to drag myself awake at a time of day when most people are sitting down to eat supper.
That's right--by about 4 o'clock in the afternoon each day, I was back in my daughter's apartment, stretched out in a chair or on a blow-up mattress, falling into a deep 45 minutes to an hour or so NAP.
And what had I done to have my body demand such a complete shutdown?
Well, simply live is the answer. You know, the whole stand in line to get a bit of breakfast, walk down to the subway, buy a subway pass, jostle and stand and shift around to get on and off the train, keep conversations quiet or eyes cast down if a psychotic person gets on the train and starts demanding attention of one sort or another, walk up the stairs into the light and try to orient yourself, go this way or that, walk everywhere through crowds of people, you know the drill.
Or maybe not so simply living. And maybe that's my point. See, just to accomplish the little things in the big city takes a lot of work. That fact that we were there to move my daughter out only hammered the point home more obviously. Moving from the eighth floor of a building requires a stage-by-stage approach of getting things out of the apartment and into the hall, out of the hall and into the elevator, out of the elevator and into the foyer, out of the foyer and into the street, and finally into the car. And each step requires eternal vigilance, since items sitting out briefly and in the open are assumed to be either up for grabs or not safe.
I love New York City. I'd visit it every chance I got. But living at the pace I normally do here in Tennessee, I can't simply cross the bridge into Manhattan and be good to go. It's a campaign--I have to plan, strategize, secure provisions, etc. That goes without saying, perhaps. But the real work comes in getting myself ready. I can't be my Tennessee self in NYC. I need to, as Eliot said, "prepare a face to meet the faces [I] meet."
City life requires me to be more sure of myself, less random, less compassionate, more assertive. And those tools don't present themselves immediately. My daughter sent my meal back in an expensive restaurant because the pasta was only lukewarm. I couldn't do it, tried to talk her out of it, because I was intimidated by the surroundings. She insisted (and was right to), battled-hardened after two years living there.
The irony is that, in some ways, New York City is an easier life. You don't need a car; public transportation and a good set of shoes will get you everywhere. You don't need to stockpile much of anything; you just walk outside and get it when you need it. There is more of everything in closer proximity--stores, restaurants, groceries, parks, cultural opportunities. You don't have to worry about your house, your yard, your trash pick-up or your leaves. And still, thorough, daily exercise is a natural result of that walkingest of cities.
The other irony, which is so often the irony of travel, is that just when I am beginning to feel a sense of comfort, confidence, and mastery in the big city, it is time to leave and go home. And those skills don't travel with me. Because I have no need or use for them back home, they erode quickly.
But the ultimate irony is that I do live in a city myself--crime, traffic, sprawl, tall buildings, and most any of the problems or challenges one might associate with urban living. It just doesn't feel like it when I'm in New York. I guess that's what happens when one city is 50 times bigger than the other one.