City Summers: A Gift and a Curse

City Summers: A Gift and a Curse June 11, 2018

The hot summer months may be one of the least convenient times of year to be in the “capital of the world.” A city usually known for its glamour, culture, and iconic status, Manhattan becomes a chamber of exhaustion that sways between the poles of sweltering humidity amidst the bustle of the streets, and the environment degrading arctic blasts of the air conditioners on the city subways. A few times in and out of a subway during one of these months could be enough to make you want to move to the notorious wastelands of “dirty Jersey,” where at least one is not subjected to the extreme conditions of the above and undergrounds of the streets of Manhattan. Lucky are those of us who get a significant chunk of time off from work during the summer, while those who must continue their stressful rush hour commute in such inhumane ranges of temperatures face an intense purgation that ought to merit a plenary indulgence.

While en route to meet a friend for lunch yesterday near the Union Square area, I realized that I had gotten on the wrong train and needed to transfer to a subway line that did not stop at that station. As I walked up from the subway station to the street level, the humidity overwhelmed my skin as I tried to figure out in which direction I was to walk in order to get to the other subway line. After a minute and a half of sprinting and simultaneously wiping the sweat from my forehead, I realized that, once again, I was headed in the wrong direction (damn iMaps!).

Union Square

What is it about New Yorkers that impels them to run, jump, and push in order to get to their destination? A four hour ride south to DC will prove the how starkly unique is the distinct sense of urgency that characterizes commuters in New York City. Though many DC commuters surely have equally as important jobs, they seem to lack any sense of having to rush to their workplace. I was put off, in a surprisingly negative way, during my last trip to DC, by the kind and respectful way in which people boarded onto and off the city metro. As a New Yorker, I took their gentleness as a sign of apathy and passivity. Don’t these people care about what they do? I soon began to realize why I have such a great affection for the pushiness of New Yorkers. While I indeed do not enjoy being pushed out of the way in order to jump onto a subway car whose doors are already halfway closed, or being bumped into by an unapologetic pedestrian, I see their urgency as a sign of the intentionality with which they live their lives-that they value that which constitutes their schedule and take seriously their desire for purpose in life. Again, it would be hard for most people to find pleasure in being knocked out of the way by a person eager to catch a cab, but the sense of purpose with which New Yorkers make their way around the streets becomes in a peculiar way an affirmation of the value of time, work, and our humanity.

The risk, however, in constantly rushing around the city is the temptation to value efficiency for its own sake. Yes, we may have a sense of purpose and drivenness as we get to where we have to go, but for what sake are we going there? What are we ultimately looking for? Efficiency for efficiency’s sake quickly devolves into a utilitarian and mechanistic notion of time that inevitably becomes a disinviting burden, a burden perhaps heavier than the extreme Manhattan temperatures. Our drive for purpose and meaning gets weighed down when sought out in a context that reduces the measure of value to utility and efficiency. If we are unable to answer the question “what are you looking for” when commuting to work, the commute quickly transform itself into an opportunity for dread and apathy rather than purpose and meaning.

Our desire for infinite meaning is stunted when we are hit in the face with the reality that we don’t have omnipotent control over time or the occurrences of our day. I was determined to get to lunch on time yesterday, and yet my own limitations as a human being and the particular way in which those non-intersecting subway lines happened to be constructed forced me to come to terms with the fact that I could not manipulate the totality of the factors that made up this day. Nor can I determine the ultimate trajectory of my own life and imbue it with infinite meaning. As I whined to myself about how much time I was wasting, I looked over to a habited nun seated next to me on the subway. I was reminded again of That which gives me this day and fills it with meaning, even when utility and efficiency run short.

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