Photo of the New York skyline by Edward Sudentas.
Like many New Yorkers, I hate crowds. On the other hand, I’m lost when I’m alone. When I find myself in a deserted place, tiny pinpricks run up my arms. My hands turn clammy and my breathing runs shallow. Shadowy corners swarm with potential attackers, even during the daylight hours.
I imagine myself cast as the innocent gazelle, chewing on a mouthful of grass. As I lift my head, my long ears twitch compulsively. I survey the landscape in 360 degrees, but I see nothing and I am calm. The camera holds on me for a beat before panning to the leopard hidden in the nearby grasses.
I fear ignorance the most. I’d rather be overly alert for danger, because then I’d be halfway prepared. I place myself in the middle of the herd rather than on the periphery, because when you’re alone, there are no witnesses.
For that reason, I find Riverside Drive terrifying. The Upper West Side, however, isn’t known to be dangerous. It’s idyllic. It’s remote enough that tourists don’t bother, but convenient enough to be extremely desirable. The cost per square foot for real estate is higher on the Upper West Side than any other neighborhood in Manhattan. It’s a wonderful place to live.
During the years I spent living in the area, I never heard of anything bad happening. I lived on a historic block where every townhouse was painted a different color – yellow ochre, brick red, charcoal, sage green. Movie crews routinely blocked off the street. On weekends, I took long aimless walks, admiring the mix of old townhouses and apartment buildings.
At night, Riverside Drive is deserted, but for lone figures walking their dogs. One side of the street looks out at the park, the West Side Highway and the water beyond. You can’t help but know that you’re on the edge of something very big.
Walking along, my ears would be attuned to everything. My mind would swarm with thoughts. ‘Is this my last breath?’ I’d ask myself. ‘Is this it? Is this it?’ I'd prepare myself for the ambush. I'd imagine a brief and violent struggle, followed by silence. I would vanish from humanity and the world would just go on.
Rationally I know the chance of such a thing happening is remote. As a New Yorker, I know that if you look like you know what you’re doing and you’re careful, it isn’t so a scary a place. It’s the mind of the New Yorker that is truly frightening. The mind can transform the mundane into a world that is fantastic and danger-filled.
I first saw the scary part of my mind during a visit to my parents a couple years ago. They live in the mountains, about an hour outside downtown Los Angeles. None of their neighbors own cats or small dogs, since rattlesnakes live in the brush. Hummingbirds appear at dusk to defend their territory. At night, startled coyotes howl when the lights are turned on. Their mad yipping and yapping sounds are other worldly and wild.
During the visit, a violent storm passed through. It was the season for the Santa Ana winds, and outside, the trees were battering themselves against the house. I sat in my bedroom, waiting for it to pass. Suddenly, the lights went out. We’d lost power.
The first thing I did, being the resourceful city person I am, was to run downstairs and make sure the front door was locked. It was common sense, after all, to protect oneself against the masses of crazy people outside, trying to break in.
Later on, I thought about what happened with much embarrassment. I told my parents about my fears, and they could not relate to me. They were used to living in a big house, where you could be in the bedroom and have no idea what was happening on the floor below. They were used to living with the closest neighbors several hundred feet away.
In contrast, I like my apartment because it feels like an extension of my body. It’s not large enough to creak on its own. There are no mysterious shadowy corners. I feel safe because I can see everything all the time. I know there are people across the hall and people above and below me. I might scream and they might not do anything about it, but at least I’ll be heard.
My fears come with me, wherever I go. I find the California mountains are too quiet. The city is too overwhelming. I didn’t used to be so paranoid, and there’s little reason to be so fearful. The city is safer than it’s ever been. Living in New York has done something to me. I am forever changed.