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Enlightened Expressions: Tuning Out

This article is the first in a new column, “Enlightened Expressions,” about the author's thoughts and impressions of New York City and its expressive, artistic culture.

How does one say this without sounding overly personal and slightly uncomfortable—well, one just says it: New York is a lonely place. Now this isn’t news, and as much as we’d like to admit we’re unaffected, that fact is, we are. The fast pace, need to succeed, oversaturated start-up mentality does take a toll. Is there a way to avoid the neon lights shouting, “If you don’t get famous now, you will get forgotten”? The answer is yes, which took me by surprise.

This past week I lost my iPod, which of course, I thought was a fatal calamity. As a result of not having an iPod, I’ve had to walk without a personal soundtrack, which means running on the treadmill no longer feels like I’m conquering a small city in South America and walking down 35th Street at four in the afternoon accompanied by Mumford and Sons no longer feels like the end of a Grey’s Anatomy episode. It has, however, forced me to listen to the conversations around me and interact more than ever, allowing me to fully grasp the concept that listening to an iPod means that every time I “plug in,” I “tune out.” Now this seems obvious, but the truth is, how often do we choose to overpower real time conversations with music?

Just this past Sunday I was studying for my Hebrew midterm in Whole Foods (not as pretentious as it sounds). Only an hour after I sat down, a short man in his 20s sat next to me; his arms were riddled with dark tattoos, and a black eye patch took over the left side of his face. For about five minutes he sat there silently eating his sandwich, until a woman in her early 30s carrying a tray of sushi joined our table. After a moment of hesitation he pointed to her meal and asked, “What are you eating?” To which she gave the obvious response, “Sushi.” He gawked in annoyance and tried again, “Ya, but what kind of sushi?” “Oh, yellow tail, salmon and tuna.” This must have been an impressive answer since he responded, “Wow, a whole trio,” paused, and then pointed to his own meal, “Roast beef.” She responded, “Cool.”

Now I can imagine why an exchange like this would deter even the most courageous from ever starting a conversation again. But what this gentleman was really trying to do was break the pertinacious New York barrier—or simply put, break the ice. Despite the potential fear of rejection, the conversation continued, and out of the haphazard, awkwardness grew an informative and real connection—well about as real as it gets in less than 10 minutes. Somewhere along the line I was pulled in at the mention of Canada, and suddenly three separate individuals turned an isolated environment into a communal table.

After both individuals left, you’d think the conversation would stop, but it didn’t. Sitting to my right was a middle-aged Israeli man speaking Hebrew on the phone. After an inner debate as to whether starting up a conversation is actually “creepy,” I asked where he was from. After 10 minutes of talking to him, I found out he’s lived in New York for 25 years, he’s been divorced for seven, and he’s remarried to the blond woman across from him whom he referred to as “this shiksa.” To which she responded, “I am so not a shiksa, I’m just an Ashkenazi Jew with blond hair.” It was only a matter of minutes before he was suggesting a shidduch and giving me advice on how to memorize Hebrew conjunctions.

After leaving the café and walking down Union Square Park, I overheard a 39-year-old woman vent to her male friend about her difficulties in getting picked up on J-Date. Her friend, a more successful J-Date client, currently juggling seven different women, ensured her that it was not her Christian beliefs that pushed them away. Rather, her Aryan features would attract Jewish men as long as she made her user name “Shiksa-who-loves-falafel.” The least I could do was suggest looking for Reform converts, but they weren’t shtark enough for her standards.

Through each overheard conversation I became increasingly aware that my New York experience, which at one time had felt unabashedly isolated, could suddenly turn into a live network of constant connections. None of the conversations lead to a Facebook request or a Tweet, none of them turned into business deals (minus the Israeli shidduch) or persuasive arguments, because we weren’t networking, we were connecting—with no other ulterior motive than to stop feeling alone in the most individualistic and isolating city in the world.

Believe it or not, I even managed to walk all the way home without feeling the need to fill up the “dead time” with music, because in reality the time we spend between places “unplugged” is the most “alive time” we have all day.