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Last week, we visited New York City so that my sons, identical twins, could be together on their birthday. We’ve done this before during the boys’ college years. One year we gathered in Budapest where one of the twins was studying math, and we wandered that city’s ancient cobbled streets together by day.
At night we retreated to the Hotel Gellert overlooking the Danube, a palatial hotel attached to exquisite marble and gold public baths. I loved soaking in the Gellert baths, watching the regulars come in at their appointed time of day and imagining the circumstances of their lives: elderly men with saggy paunches hanging over their Speedos, elegant working girls taking a swim before an evening on the town, mothers and babies cooing and bobbing, subdued fathers relaxing in the effervescent waters before going home to face their family duties.
At the baths in Budapest, it was understood that we were not to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Privacy was paramount.
In New York last week, I was the guest of friends who’d rented an apartment in midtown — a spacious, modern dwelling with floor to ceiling glass windows in every room. From our vantage point on the 28th floor, we could see the long reach of East 57th St. to the Hudson River, a corner of Central Park, and in the other direction, the Queensboro Bridge. But more fascinating to me than the long view were the hundreds of apartment windows we could see from ours, television sets glowing, kids doing homework, a man watering the potted plants on his narrow balcony garden in the sky. It was impossible for a nosy interloper like me, a visitor, to not watch. I have not lived my life bound to the oath of privacy that oils the clockwork of a place like New York.
In New York, life’s most fundamental concerns rotate around space and confinement. In Manhattan, where 1.6 million people occupy 23 square miles, everyone guards his or her personal space with an embedded consciousness of purpose. And yet, there is great freedom and mobility available within that private space.
Out here in Colorado, where I live, people find their freedom in wild, open spaces, on mountains populated by elk, deer, and bears. In New York, a crowded jigsaw puzzle of people, pavement, glass and steel, freedom is more internal than external and is based on an unspoken contract that guarantees privacy — a membrane that separates each New Yorker from the next one. Without that contract, nothing would work, the city wouldn’t move perpetually forward, the machinery would rust and freeze.
I visited my daughter’s sixth floor walk-up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Since my last visit, the landlord had spruced up the staircase with black and silver paint and had adorned the pitted and scarred doors with new number plates. Spicy food smells and small voices leaked out beneath the closed doors as I trudged upward. My daughter had moved into a space with more light than her previous space in the same building, and jubilantly showed me her standard length bathtub.
My son, who lives farther south in Brooklyn, showed me his new room in an apartment he shares with three other young men. When he says he loves the new neighborhood, he is referring to the neat storefronts, the interesting architecture, and the relative lack of garbage on the curbs and in the streets.
We all ate together in a crowded restaurant where New Yorkers talked and hugged and drank wine and shared news of the day and ate dishes prepared with precision and imagination. I loved the bustling intimacy of the restaurant and felt proud of my children, purposeful and self-contained, navigating life in this astonishing place, the twins as happy to be blowing out birthday candles on their individual dessert plates at 24 as they had been when they were seven.
I was proud to be able to get myself home on the subway with minimal trepidation. Late at night, encapsulated in their invisible privacy bubbles, my fellow passengers napped, studied, read, and tapped at their smart phones as we rocked through tunnels beneath the city.
We flew back to Denver and as we were driving away from the airport, I felt my New York privacy bubble dissipate in the thin, dry air. To the west, the setting sun painted the distant mountain ridges silver, then gold. My solitary heart opened and dissolved across the dry, dusty plains.
You can find Kathryn’s recipe for posole, comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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