I’m hungry and grateful for any little bit of individualized attention this indifferent city can condescend to give me. Today , when the counterperson at the deli on Seventh and 40th took my grey travel mug from my hand and without a word handed it back with just the right amount of coffee in it and then unquestioningly rang up the oat meal and fruit I had assembled in the other mug I’d brought from home, it felt like a sweet, sweet gift. And that feeling was compounded when I then rounded the corner, and climbed the stairs to Midtown Comics, where I picked up my weekly pull and joked with the staffers.
On one hand New York is about speed and efficiency, knowing the quickest route to someplace, getting a good deal. On the other, it’s about being the insider, the one who knows the stuff others don’t. Between those two, I hunger for being part of a neighborhood, knowing that that my encounters with people remain distinct in their minds. Is this pathology? My morning experiences were just encounters with people doing their jobs, which in part are about convincing me to come back as a customer. That I take this as special can just be my own delusion.
But so much of modern experience is about standardization, of eliminating the peculiarities of interaction in the name of convenience or safety. We treat each other uniformly so that we aren’t caught in an awkward encounter that puts us at risk. The staff at the comic book store has to deal with thousands of folks in a week who could turn belligerent or obsessive. It’s a type of dynamic that never want to fall into, and I like to think that I do the work of building trust, so that my presence there can act as a respite from the work week and not as a problem. But then, do we know when we’ve become one?
The desire to be special is different from the desire to have humane interactions. We may want to be noticed by the world in general and turn peevish when that wish is thwarted, forcing individuals to notice us when the world will not. But while all of us deserve love, none of us is owed attention. We can only make those gestures of paying attention, of trying to treat those we encounter as individuals. In the same way that I have time when I make time, I can change the tenor of my interactions by focusing on my actions.