Lonely or Alone: How Having Nowhere to Be Takes You Somewhere Better

By the very basic laws of physics, Energy is what propels each of us through our days. Energy gets us out of bed in the morning and into the shower. Energy is why we have friends, how we clean the kitchen, and why dogs and cats like (or don’t like) playing with us.

Living in a metropolis like New York City, energy is needed to a high degree. Work hard, play hard, but whichever one you’re doing, you better be doing it hard. There’s a reason why, as my host momma in Italy would say, “New Yorkers carry their breakfast around with them in large cups.” Anyone who knew me back when I lived in Ohio, especially my family, would have assumed that this city was perfect for me. When I’m in my hometown, I thrive on a lifestyle that consists of staying out late and waking up with just enough time to fit in a shower and coffee before I head out to my plans for the day.

Aside from appointments for various checkups with the doctor or dentist, most of my plans in Ohio consist of meeting up with friends. I attribute my constant busyness to the fact that I went to an all-girls private school for most of my life in Ohio, and thus all of my friends come from different schools and backgrounds with which I was taught to network at a young age (if I ever wanted anything cool to happen to me). Consequently, none of my social circles hang out with or even know each other. So if I start my day with friends from my alma mater, I end it with those I know from working at the movie theater. Plans that are made with people I’m tight with because we live near each other can easily end in a night spent with swim team buddies. Needless to say, if my family wants me to join them at a sit down dinner, they know to tell me ahead of time so that I can pencil it in.

Urban sprawl has affected Cleveland so heavily that I spend half an hour to forty minutes driving between whatever I’m doing, making it easy to leave behind one plan for the other. Time flies so fast with my busy schedule that what was at first a 6-day visit in which I was sure I’d have time to visit my grandparents for an afternoon has now become a speeding countdown to my departing flight, one that leaves me calculating and prioritizing who I will see and how. But this wasn’t the case in New York City.

In New York, where I lived, I had endless amounts of time and infinite opportunities to see others. The difference, however, was that I didn’t have a 35 minute drive in a car, by myself, blasting music, in which I could recharge my energy for what came next. In the city, everything is everywhere, just piles of everything, calling to you and licking its lips trying to taste you the second you step out onto your stoop. I was asked to smile more times in my trips heading to and from work on the Upper West Side than the accumulated 15 years of School Picture Days I experienced in my early youth. Having the energy to go out in New York required more than just the energy of a social butterfly, because I didn’t just “leave my place” and “arrive at the next,” I had to swim through everyone and everything else in between.

To be honest, I didn’t get excited about going out in the city most of the time unless I was already out. And often even then, I’d slip away and grab a cab before anyone noticed, speed home and text my friends from the backseat that I wasn’t feeling well, that I got lost, that I’d meet up with them later. It wasn’t the nicest thing to do to friends you had plans with, and it’s not something I’m proud of or have ever done outside of the city. But in New York, I was tired. I had no place of rest but my apartment which was still permeated by noises of screaming ambulances and drug dealers yelling “Sour!” I was tired of being seen all the time, of being touched by sitting only in seats that hundreds of people had sat in that day. I was tired of being sung to on the subway when I had no quarters in my wallet. I was tired of always looking over my shoulder and brushing my knuckles against the zipper of my purse to ensure that it was closed after every store or coffee shop I exited.

I didn’t even realize that I was tired of the city until after I had left it. I thought that, in New York, I was never alone. Even if my friends weren’t around, there was energy and busyness on every street; people going about their day, as I went about mine. And I thought for sure that if I had the kind of social anxiety that caused me to escape in a cab mid-outing with my friends just to be alone, in a place where I knew so many people and there was so much happening at my doorstep, I would definitely struggle to make friends and be social when I relocated to Burlington, a city in which I knew no one and that had a population smaller than the average suburb of Cleveland. But instead, something unexpected arose inside of me after only a couple of weeks of moving to Burlington.

All of the space that would otherwise be occupied by strangers and bus stops and tall buildings blocking half the sky became something else to me, something other than the absence of city things. It became room; room for me to breathe, room for me to reach out into. Amongst people, everywhere, all the time, I had felt completely alone, not because I was depressed and withdrawn, but because I was isolated into a corner by my surroundings. By the laws of attraction, every living thing is sending out chemical signals with their thoughts, feelings, and actions; but in New York City there’s no place to go to avoid all that, to collect or recharge. New York is only concerned with making just enough room for millions of bodies to live in shoe boxes and cram into train cars. Meanwhile our energy is being constantly pulled from us by the woman on the sidewalk selling mangos, the cab driver in the front seat yelling in Arabic at cars ahead of him, the noisy garbage truck roaring past as a caddy boss reschedules her nanny in the next office over. Perhaps it is plausible that artists, actors, and writers carve out their survival in New York City by training themselves so well in the act of finding a quiet place in their creative work.

I realize that I come off as cynical in this reflection, and perhaps I’m just not the type of person that’s cut out for a city as big as New York. Many people consider New York City the best place on Earth, and I used to count myself one of those people. But in my time staying here in Burlington, I have slowly started to care less about the act of leaving New York behind because without all those tall buildings crammed together wherever I looked, there’s much more to see in front of me than I had ever imagined, and there is room to reach for it. For the first time since I left Cleveland to pursue a college degree in New York, I’m not terrified to head off to a poetry workshop where I won’t know a single person. I’m not looking over my shoulder so much, or stuffing headphones into my ears, or breaking eye contact. My body is free to do as I please because none of my surroundings are targeting it with unwanted attention. Can you believe that when I go for my morning jog, some people smile at me or wave or say “Hi” as I pass, and it doesn’t creep me out or make me want to put up a wall at all? If you are a New Yorker, you might not.

Knowing no one and nothing about where I am has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. If I make plans to go out, it’s because I want find something new, not escape something familiar. Nothing is familiar. Not yet, anyway. And when I finally do have back-to-back plans that I’ve committed myself to in Burlington, I won’t be dragging my feet to get there.

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