Surfaces and Edges

by Marlene Lee

People in Manhattan somehow manage to maintain space around themselves. Theyíve worked out a method for sliding by each other in buses and restaurants and store aisles.

Life is cramped and inconvenient in Manhattan. The first week in my tiny new living room-study-loft on the Upper West Side I ran into walls, bumped into the banister, and found myself apologizing to door jambs. The uneven hardwood floor hurtled me down the steep steps. Pencils rolled off tables and the soup slanted. The second night, coming down from the loft, I fell downstairs and nearly knocked myself out.

"What in the world are you doing in Manhattan?" I asked myself. "At age sixty ,you should be baking cookies for your grandchildren in your hometown." The fact that I didnít have either grandchildren or a home town escaped my attention. Deep within lay the suspicion that a sixty-year-old woman should not be ambitious. Should be content where she is. Bloom where she is planted.

But weíre not flowers, after all. We have legs. Weíre not doomed to stay in the same spot. We donít have to wait patiently and humbly for a master gardener to do whatever master gardeners do. So I pulled up my own roots, shallow and weak though they may be, and found new dirt in Manhattan.

There have been adjustments. One of them is spatial. Pushing my basket up and down the narrow aisles of the Broadway Farm market at West 85th on my first night in town, I waited for a woman to select a can of sardines. And waited. And waited. She finally looked at meóa last resort in Manhattanóand gave my basket and me an impatient directive to pass. I didnít believe there was room for all three of us. But there was. And all that time when I thought she was reading the sardine labels, she was acutely aware of me and my location in space.

People in Manhattan can see behind themselves when facing forward. They know whatís back there and how fast itís closing in on them. For instance, if youíre walking along, minding your own business, and the pedestrian in front of you comes to a sudden stop without signaling, you know he or she is from somewhere else and canít see out the back.

And only tourists apologize. If a diner says heís sorry for squeezing by your table, you know itís an out-of-town thigh thatís just grazed the edge of your dinner plateóand that the restaurant owner must get 2.6 round diners into each square foot if heís to make a profit.

In subways and buses, the rule is you squeeze as many people as possible into one conveyance without inciting violence. Being offended won't help. Moral indignation and self-righteousness are unknown to New Yorkers. Outrage doesnít work. Whatís the point? When someone pushes in front of you, itís generally without malice. Theyíre just trying to get through their day. Before nightfall, youíll do the same to someone else.

And New Yorkers do not touch. They may smell each otherís perspiration and breath. They stand within inches of each otherís dandruff, acne, and undyed hair roots. Their sleeves, shoulder pads, jackets, shoes, purses, bags, computer cases, and backpacks touch. But people, themselves, do not. Unless itís required in a crowded situation. In that case it becomes impersonal because everyone agrees itís not really touching. Itís just sliding by surfaces and edges on your way to wherever youíre going.

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