This summer, I moved into a fourteenth-floor apartment overlooking the Manhattan skyline. It was an upgrade from the dingy communal bathrooms and thin walls of college dorms. I loved having a kitchen to cook warm meals in and a balcony where I could drink tea before bed. I relished being able to burn a candle in my living room while reading after dinner, listening to the nearby 7 train’s melodic lull while falling asleep.
But what I loved most about my new home was that, late at night, I could look outside my window and see dozens of other apartments just like mine: some with fluorescent overhead lighting, some lit in warm yellows, others illuminated only by a flickering television screen. I found it comforting—that even in my solitude as a young single person in New York, I could see the blurry shadows of people moving about, each with their own stories. I’d think back on my day and wonder if I’d met them somehow: a fleeting glance on the 7 train, a furtive, thin-lipped smile, followed by diverted eyes and volume turned up on my headphones. I’m still enamored of those moments, those passing subway connections. As I soon learned after moving to New York from San Diego, the cardinal rule of the New York subway is never to make eye contact with anyone. But once in a while, I’ll catch the downcast glance of another public-transport rebel. Sometimes we’ll smile before quickly looking away.
My routine last summer became steady: 8 a.m. alarm, stumble out of bed at 8:30. Listen to a new podcast on the train, read a few pages from my latest dollar paperback. Stop at Pret A Manger for my morning cold brew, begin another work day. Being an intern at Commonweal had softened the blow of transitioning into a workday routine. I genuinely enjoyed my work and getting to know my intelligent and kind colleagues. We ate lunch together at the office every day, and I looked forward to political discussions, weekend updates, and the speculative conversations about when MoviePass would inevitably shut down. Around 5:30 I’d head home, either to meet up with friends or return to my fourteenth-floor room, and wind down for the evening.
But often as I’d commute home, a question would nag, an anxiety I suspect others my age share: Is there even a point?
I know this comes across as entitled millennial angst about having a 9-to-5. But I don’t mean it in a depressive way. I understand there’s beauty to be found in just existing. I’m frequently comforted by small delights—a laughing child on the subway, a random act of kindness I witness on the New York streets. And yet, I couldn’t shake my distress that I was participating in little other than what Thomas Merton famously dubbed “a completely artificial charade.”
On those existentially anxious commutes home, a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” often came to mind: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting…” New York is all of those things. Living alone in New York among its diverse milieu, amid thousands of anonymous people with their own stories, is at once harsh, exciting, and lonely. And at times, it can feel like the loneliness outweighs the excitement more than the other way around.