notes on being a stranger in New York
I am not quite sure what being a stranger in New York means. I wonder if you can not be a stranger here. And, if we all are, you cease to be one.
At my favorite Japanese supermarket I discovered something among the seaweed salad and sushi: Baumkuchen, it read on the distinctly Japanese package. This seemed far-fetched to me, sparking my curiosity. I wondered what something quite German like that would taste Japanese style. It looked like the Baumkuchen I knew. Opening the package, I found that it was very soft and moist, displaying perfect little light brown tree rings.
It was delicious.
But it was not until the next day when I opened the fridge and found the leftover half of it, that I looked closer at that little piece of Japanese pastry.
Eating the remainder of what looked like a slice cut out of a tiny Japanese tree, holding it between my fingers, squeezing it, watching the rings deform and slowly dissolving them in my mouth- made me think about this city.
There is no one New York, as there is no other one city, but rather there are layers of it seeping into each other, interweaving. Even if the layers appear distinctly apart as in the delicate cake, they touch each other, have no end but fuse at their fringes, piled onto each other, densely, touching, leaking and moving.
Living here, as in any metropolis, means defining my layer, made up of my own experiences, the ones I came with just as much as the ones I am making here. It is made up of favorite places and people I meet - the woman giving out the amNewYork every morning at the metro on 14th, the couple running the deli at the corner, my friends. The homeless guy who told me the story of how he came to live in his segment that touches mine only for the length of a smoke. My lover whose smell fades in the subway. Memories, images, hope and all the bodies buried hastily, trying to move on.
How can one’s own segment of the city be defined?
It is hardly a matter of physical space, of being apart spatially. Sharing space with strangers is not an option but an urban state of being, creating the much acclaimed anonymity within the density, the excitement and loneliness, the chance and task of being unknown in the sea of faces on a busy avenue.
With people in constant motion, buildings, presenting a seemingly more stable factor, become projection surfaces for emotion and memories. It is the touchable rough surface of the city, the street, the cracked sidewalk, the beat up metro station sign, the building at the corner, that you can recognize tomorrow, that will still be there when you come looking for your history.
(Maybe this is why it hurts to see a place you knew changed when you return after some time. The city has moved on without you, leaving behind a spot bare of memory, created by the impact of others on it, in a process much like erosion.)
You have yours and I have mine, those landmarks of meaning. For you, it might not mean anything, for me, it is the center of my city.
My layer runs through the concrete shapes of the streets like a stream, filling the space between the buildings, the passers-by, the noise and cars and the flashing of the traffic lights, tinting the city with what my life here is made of. For me, it is about opening up, confronting myself, learning, discovering, being apalled and fascinated at the same time, making new beginnings and finding out who I am and who I want to be. It is about memories that are only possible here, conversations in bookstores and at flea markets, movies on rooftops, late night subway stations, the classrooms and bars I have been to, Canal St on a busy weekday, Tompkin Sq in the sun.
It is about emotional space.
Once created, it is impossible to conserve any of it, you can only try to hang on to the images in your memory.
The city is not solid but in steady motion, allowing you to move between different streams of meaning. I can invite you into mine and even though you live next door and have known the same streets for many years, the view will be a different one. Yet, you will remain a visitor in my thin line of sediment.
As this is true for all people in the city, what does being a stranger here mean then?
Being a stranger to other people´s layers of meaning of the city? Not seeing the city with the same eyes? Or does it mean being a stranger to the physical shape the city takes on, in form of streetscapes, manifestations of its life, acting as container for whatever you are trying to find, or leave behind?
Once you arrive, you are creating your own layer, your emotional space, maybe reluctantly, very likely in comparison to where you came from.
Whatever you find relates to who you are.
One day the city evokes feelings of home and being sheltered, the next day the same streets are hostile and foreign to your eye.
If you hate the drastic ordeal of a regular Manhattan August day, the heat and dampness, the noise, the filth, the masses, and long for a quiet place far away, you do so in reaction to the city, defining your relationship with her and revealing much about your state of mind.
With all of us moving about, who is to say who is a stranger and who belongs? Belonging where, is there a door to emotional space? The instant the city makes you react and absorb the scenery, you belong to this moment´s snapshot of different layers.
We all can be strangers and share this wonderful and ugly space, make it ours, meet and live apart and remain strangers to the extent that we keep our distance, which in the end is a mechanism of survival and privilege in our urban world. Yet, if you are open and willing to give her something of you, the city will hold many experiences and a journey through her tree rings in store for you. Like any relationship, it needs redefining and constant exchange, negotiating and willingness to take some risk. You might just discover something about yourself.
The little cake might have a German name and look like German pastry, but tasting it, it is quite different and unique, and of course you would find it here, in this little store that captures Japanese life, New York style.