In the Pacific Ocean, people are scarcer than landmass and loneliness is the only company. The journeys are long for the sailor. In comparison to the size of the ocean, he is forever en route, denied the right to reach anything, ever. Loneliness sits heavy on his shoulders as his eyes plead with the emptiness to allow through some proof that there are others who have undertaken the same journey. Some proof that every smudge on the horizon is not just a mirage, a Fata Morgana, or a carcass, but an actual ship carrying living beings.
Occasionally, a ship appears far out in the distance. The sailor steers towards it, his predicament alleviated by the presence of another human being. The two ships meet, port side to port side. The sailors yell out a simple hello to one another. There’s no functional purpose to it — it’s just an acknowledgement of the existence of another human being in the great loneliness of the Pacific.
I am not alone, thinks the sailor, certain that his counterpart is thinking the same as both of them carry on their way as if the chance meeting had never happened at all.
In the city, it is different. In a city like New York, it is especially different. Faces of every kind, hurrying to and from, grazing clothes, bumping elbows, on their way to experience something someone else had just come out of. I walk with them. My past becomes the future of someone walking opposite me, their past my future. I try it on, like a pair of old shoes, to see if it fits my idea of tomorrow. They do the same, all over the city. Without much pomp and without any acknowledgement, as if my face and theirs signified nothing more than leaves blowing in the wind.
What hides behind those faces? Rich worlds bearing grapes of experience, love, hurt, failure and loneliness. None of it visible on the outside. We meet on the street and pass each other, silently, like ships in the night. There’s no loneliness like the loneliness of a city, among millions of people.
This feeling is not unique to New York, even though it might there be at its most intricate. Every city nurses its own sense of loneliness, evident in the great anonymity of people. Anonymity and silence reign, despite our being so physically close so as to easily tell the color of the iris.
There was once a homeless man whom I often ran into, sitting on the curbside. I offered to buy him lunch once and then we ate together, looking at the pedestrians. He told me much of his life story, of the many perceived wrongs and grievances that had forced him to inhabit the streets. But more than homelessness, more than hunger, more than the sorrow, he told me about the silence he had to become intimate with. The silence of other people. The averted eyes. The avoiding. He felt invisible, a non-person. Speaking of this, he averted his own eyes.
Years, and a few more cities later, I learned that the silence and the avoidance were not reserved for the homeless, even though for them it was the salt in the wound. Despite the usual noise of a city street, there’s an underlying silence permeating everything. A reluctance to make eye contact, to smile, or to say hello, as if we were islands in no need of one another. Unlike the good kind of silence, this kind is torture.
It’s a scary prospect, to need other people. I’ve always prided myself on my individuality and self-sufficiency, thinking that the less I need others the more free I become. I still hold that belief in that I’ve experienced that needing less does bring with it a widening of the horizon. A sense of heightened free will and a measure of courage, unburdened by expectations and whims of others.
And yet, out on the street, where we hurry about our business with blinders made up of our own troubles, each one of us plays the part of a pebble on the beach — beautiful, smooth, cold and un-needing. We do not need others!, we seem to say as we rush here and there, around the corner, all the while clutching the smartphone like a crutch, sacrificing the possibility of a new connection on the street for the certainty of one in the confines of the digital screen.
I had always found our exorbitant reliance on digital communication sad, as if it lessens who we are. I still think the same, even while I clutch my own iPhone crutch. The street is silent, while likes and hearts flow freely from the frantic tapping of the glass screens. Searching for connection. Like the homeless man, like the sailor. The sense of existing, as solidly as a storefront, but invisible, a speck of dust drifting in the Pacific air.
The speck hides so much more than is visible to the naked eye. Each person on the street, beneath the thin skin, hides the thickness of human existence. There’s no one I cannot learn something from, no one I cannot teach something. There, that woman with the wide hat and a small child, she might be a writer who can serve as my mentor.
Across the street, that old man walking as fast as a school hour drips could tell me a thing or two about women. The guy in the bookstore might share my experience as an expat, and the homeless gipsy shivering in the corner of a building just might tell me a story that would make my head spin.
It could all happen, and yet it might not. These people might be utterly dull to me, and I to them. There’s no way of knowing and it would not make sense to try and explore everyone to the highest degree. It takes more than a single lifetime to know oneself, let alone another human being. Even so, a single lifetime is enough to recognize and acknowledge others. To learn something of their complexity, of their experience, fears, doubts, and passions. To offer a nod in passing, a knowing look, a smile, or a simple hello in recognition of our shared humanity on this sometimes pitch-black journey.