I’ve spent a bit of time in New York recently, and it is here that I discovered the pleasure of big city anonymity. Walking through these streets, heading toward a farmers’ market or a free theater performance, I can be sure that I’m just part of a crowd, indistinguishable in the memories of passers-by from the hundreds of other citizens on the sidewalks. If I do something embarrassing, like trip on a jagged bit of concrete or get stuck in the closing subway doors, people will glance for a moment and forget my face. These pedestrians have destinations I couldn’t guess, and I’ll probably never see them again. I’ve gained a funny story, and, at most, I’ve lost only a few seconds of dignity.
I thought about this again when a friend showed me a YouTube video of Improv Everywhere, a zany theatrical group who in this case invaded that same subway system and staged a reenactment of Princess Leia’s capture by the Empire from “Star Wars.” I watched the actress’ face as she sat in her white robe and sticky bun hairdo, ignoring the puzzled stares of the other passengers. She didn’t care one bit about what they thought of her. At that moment, she didn’t have a name or a definable face. She was playing a part, and later that evening, she’d go back to her apartment, take down her hair, eat a bowl of cereal and watch the news. And above all, she would not have lost anything.
Now, imagine that happening on a Bursley-Baits bus. Ann Arbor is a city where you can run into people you know every time you leave your home. Yet people frequently engage in acts that impact the general public. Just think of all of the drummers and preachers on the Diag, the people who run into classrooms and give out candy, the young men who sit outside Espresso Royale collecting stories, the people who invaded the fishbowl to play live Pac Man and nearly gave me a panic attack my freshman year.
I’ve always wondered what causes people to do this. I’ve only taken part in public acts once or twice, and they weren’t positive experiences. An organization once compelled me to go bucketing, which entails standing on a street corner and asking passers-by for money to support good causes. I could barely stand the few hours I put in. I knew that no one would think much about it after they passed me, and I knew that the money was going to legitimately help people in need. Yet I watched the oncoming traffic anxiously, terrified that someone I knew and respected would walk by. Given the choice, I’d rather have New York subway doors close on me over and over again.
On the other hand, I don’t think I’d mind sitting on the street and asking people for their stories. Approaching people for their financial contributions, religious convictions or political support has a place, but in the end, the interaction is about one party profiting from the other. The only kinds of public acts that strike me as worth the stress and potential humiliation are ones with the end of creating connections between people.
It takes courage to break out of the anonymity afforded by a city and actually pursue personal relationships. It requires granting some basic trust to a broad section of humanity. So many times — in Ann Arbor, New York, Detroit or any other big city — I’ve seen the individuals milling around me and wanted badly to connect with them. The man over there is reading my favorite author. The girl walking toward me has such a look of confidence and peace. The grandmotherly figure on the bench is singing softly to herself. The stories are all around me, but they seem so inaccessible.
A certain young woman I met on the subway made that effort of kinship, ignored the norm of New York commuter apathy and, instead of averting her eyes, started talking to me. As we clutched the backs of seats and swayed with the rattling of the car, she told me her story of coming to the city and the challenges she’d encountered. We discovered we were both from the Midwest, that we both went to big public universities and that neither of us cared about football. We laughed in the middle of an otherwise silent train.
If she can do this as a lonely newcomer in the biggest city in the country, I must be able to do much more as a comfortable resident of a small, friendly city like Ann Arbor. People pass by on the sidewalk every day, and that makes for a lot of stories I have yet to hear.
Carolyn Lusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.