Alone in Public
by Wendy Richmond
On the B train this morning, I sat next to a woman who had a huge, droopy leather purse open on her lap. She pushed around its contents, retrieved a tiny tube of beige foundation and patted its liquid under each eye and onto her nose and chin. Then she dug deeper into the bag and pulled out an eyelash curler (a scary thing to use on the subway), followed by mascara, blush and lipstick. Throughout the entire procedure, she seemed oblivious to everything and everyone in the subway car. I could hear music leaking out of her ear buds, the soundtrack to her separate and solitary world.
I wrote in my previous column that I’ll be spending a month-long residency in Rome, observing and documenting the ways people share (and do not share) public space. For years, I’ve been studying how city dwellers form personal zones when they are alone in dense, urban spaces. New York City, where I live, is the model, but it could be your city, too.
Every day, millions of urbanites venture out, each one of us occupying a tiny piece of communal space. We are simultaneously inhabiting a non-physical space, a private, mental zone that surrounds each of us when we are alone in public. These zones are shaped by us, and by whatever is around us.
At times we want to retreat from public space, and tone down, if not negate, the city's intrusive behavior of noise and grittiness. So we create “Personal Bubbles,” immersing ourselves in private activities that take us away from our current physical surroundings. Like the makeup woman, we turn our focus inward, entering our own worlds. We make phone calls, we read, we listen to our iPods, we solve crossword puzzles, we text.
Sometimes the retreat we seek is not from the city's bad behavior, but from its relentless vibrancy. A few weeks ago, while waiting in a packed auditorium for a lecture to begin, I told my neighbor (a stranger) that I was working on a project about the Personal Bubble. A look of recognition crossed her face. “Oh yes,” she said, “we need personal bubbles to protect ourselves.” As she described all that she had seen in just one day, I realized that she did not mean protection from terrorists or muggers, but instead from intensity. A friend once told me that when she lived in New York, she would leave her glasses at home so she could deal with the overload. “There’s too much to see, to hear, to feel,” she said. “By not wearing my glasses, I blurred the city’s sharpness.”
Yet there are times when it is exactly that sharpness that we relish, and then we create a mental zone of total attentiveness, where every sight and sound is a reward. Instead of retreating, we want to be totally present. Unlike my glasses-less friend, this zone is in sharp focus, where all of our senses are on high alert. We don't want to miss anything, and at every moment there is something new to miss. This morning after the makeup woman got off the train, she was replaced by three guys drumming, who in turn made way for a group of harnessed, hand-holding toddlers. When I exited at Columbus Circle, a few teenagers were skateboarding near the fountain, and I couldn’t resist taking time out to watch their impressive tricks.
In his new book In Motion, Tony Hiss describes Deep Travel. Hiss encourages his readers to experience what is innate in each of us; the ability to be (and to enjoy being) highly responsive to where we are, whether it is a trip far from home, or a walk in our own neighborhood. “Deep Travel,” he writes, “has the feeling of waking up further while already fully awake.” It occurs, he continues, because “we have internally multiplied and reinforced the intensity of the awareness we are training on the world around us. This puts us in the position...of expecting to find out still more about the things and people around us. ...it extends both to objects and subjects we ordinarily find fascinating and to those previously thought dull or trivial.”
The Personal Bubble and Deep Travel (plus the hundreds of zones in between) are mental states that we cultivate—consciously and unconsciously—when we spend time alone in public. There’s an old joke about a popular restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” A city is a place of extremes, and all of its qualities, good and bad, have a flip side. Because of, and in spite of, what the city offers, we love it. We just have to be in the right state of mind. CA
© 2011 W. Richmond
Editor’s note: Wendy is the author of Art Without Compromise*.