Concrete Jungle of Reality
By Jennifer Fiorile
I grew up in the shadow of New York City, ninety minutes north of Manhattan. Because of that, I believed I could become a professional ballet dancer down there. Hardly a revolutionary dream for a teenage girl who had taken ballet lessons for years but living so closely, it seemed more attainable. When I was around fifteen years old, my dad drove me down to Lincoln Center, the heart and home of professional ballet in Manhattan, for an audition to attend a top tier ballet camp.
Going down to the city was an opportunity to don the persona of a tough, worldly city girl. This was an amalgamation of characters I’d created from movies, TV shows, and books set in Manhattan. Only serious ballet dancers went to auditions, so this was a unique combination of achieving a dream and delightful play-acting. It was something I’d never experienced before. I had a distinct and career-driven purpose for being in New York City. A trip like this gave me a taste of adulthood. I was going to a place where the entire world is happening all the time. On one island, millions of people are crowded inside of unbelievably tall buildings that create gorges between which are crowded even more people; it did seem that this was the entire world.
Later that evening, I was sitting alone in the car inside of a parking garage. I guess my dad was paying for the parking. The view I had in front of me were skyscrapers in the night. Lights speckled across and dotting the cityscape, mimicking the night sky that no one in Manhattan can see anyway. In my memory, one light seems to shine brighter than the others. In this one particular window, a lone man with red hair stood in black underwear smoking a cigarette, looking in a mirror. I'd never seen a man in just his underwear before, so that was pretty interesting. Besides that, he was just so alone. In the great wide darkness teeming with life around him, his light and his cigarette looked so diminutive, just one little pinpoint that I'd never know or see again. It was a pure moment of intimate anonymity. I committed the image to memory. It seemed important at the time.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked part-time on the weekends at a small museum in downtown Manhattan. Working there was an experiment to see if life down there was really all it’s cracked up to be. (It was also a way to take my city girl persona for a longer test drive.) It was fun and eye-opening, stressful and expensive. There were three locals who would come in to chat to us gallery workers.
They were the kind of people who don't seem to notice they're talking too long and too much. They couldn’t sense the awkward lulls that should indicate the end of a conversation. They were incredibly lonely but kind-hearted, loving people who only had familiar strangers to share their stories with. Eventually, I moved away to Berlin, Germany for a now-ex boyfriend. I mostly forgot about those three people, marking them as just the singular “weirdos” that you meet throughout your life.
As my life in Berlin developed, working in Manhattan remained a jewel in my crown of life experiences. I’d fulfilled at least some sliver of my childhood dreams. I told people very proudly about my time there, with all the pomp and pretension of a young adult trying to prove their worth and maturity. I still considered New York City to be a central focus for the whole world. I said that the expense and noise were what kept me from living there. A few years later, after my relationship had ended, I returned to work at the museum and found out that one of those locals, Marie, had committed suicide by shooting herself on the street. It was shocking, tragic, and deeply revelatory, as surely every suicide is.
I remembered her kindness, her intelligence, her warmth, and how desperately she seemed to always want to keep chatting and sharing and communing. A person like this was off-putting in a city whose citizens are famous for their cold-hearted attitude and rushed demeanor, in a city where the anonymity of you and everyone around you is embraced. In a way, Marie’s death confirmed for me that I’d never want to live or work in New York City, that really I wanted very little to do with it. People commit suicide all over the world and in all sorts of environments. I know that. Yet, it became clear to me that to live in New York City meant ignoring the reality of others, sitting on the subway beside any person like the red haired man or Marie and pretending that I was still the sole protagonist of the story in my mind.
I didn’t get chosen for that particular ballet camp in the city but I did end up attending one closer to home at Vassar College. Teenage ballet dancers on the road to professional dancing careers are extremely talented and extremely competitive. Not long after my camp experience, my love for ballet and desire to be a professional dancer fizzled out. I miss dancing itself and reveling in awe at the holiness of a big dream but I don't think I could have cut it in the dance world. I just couldn't get the knack of being that focused.
When you see it all together at night, it's as if the lights in the skyscrapers were switched on just for the effect, to give people a sense of the enormity of human progress. Each of those lights represents a person who has turned the light switch on in that room. How many of those lights in the city are switched on for just one person? More than I can imagine. I know I'm not saying anything earth shattering here. These are well trodden paths that I'm exploring. Anonymity and ignoring others aren't even unique qualities to New York City or its citizens. Coldness and obliviousness are part of the human condition.
New York City is both a physical place and a literary backdrop to the stage on which this microcosm of human loneliness and dreams, reality and disappointment is played out. When I was young, I wanted to be in the literary New York City. The romanticized version. What I found was as real, ugly, and unromantic as the rest of the world.