She eats alone tonight. The steam of a single hot pot of broth, vegetables and meat rises, clouding her face. He eats alone at another table. Smartphone in hand, he picks at a plate of rice, beef, tomatoes and eggs. No family style at this Chinese restaurant in Chelsea, but personal hot pots, personal soup and rice combos, and everyone eats alone.
Everyone, in fact, is singular. So many flood New York City only to eat alone, struggle alone, strive alone and rejoice alone. Fifty people a minute walk by on a morning in Midtown. Eight million people to meet once and never again. As in London, where Somerset Maugham’s hero Philip Carey “had never imagined that it was possible to be so lonely in a great city,” New York is a cheerful place for those in the network and friendless to the rest.
But the dream is, intoxicating. “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere,” one man sings through the speakers on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. The hope of possible instant fame swells as a small crowd gathers, and perhaps a talent scout among them. Just maybe.
The number of probable interactions seems to grow endlessly as hundreds of thousands of people move to the city every year. Then many find the great effort to pay rent, buy overpriced food and see all the shows is actually a striving to be alone. An overwhelming opportunity for small talk makes most New Yorkers observers, and sharers on the internet.
Beside me, two men on the elevator gripe so much about being late they forget to press the button for their floor. Women on the bus argue about whether a pair of shoes are “pink” or “raspberry.” Stories to tell, but only from the outside looking in.
Then one day a boy with a backpack throws his arms up in frustration at the subway doors that have just slammed shut in front of him. Miraculously, the doors reopen. He steps in, and I dash in behind just before they snap shut again.
A New York triumph. We smile.