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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Do You Need Help?

Despite having been more or less body-slammed by this past week, I can't resent New York too much for it.

Actually, if I'm being totally fair, I can't resent New York at all. It's not New York's fault, after all, that I lost a friend, or my job, or even my Metrocard. It's not its fault that my computer crashed or that I sat on my digital camera.

And yet, I do, in some sense, hold it responsible. Things are just more difficult in this city, I've found. Where else to you have to drag your clothes up and down five flights of stairs and around the corner on laundry day? Where else can you pay an arm and a leg to live in an apartment so small that the simple question of what to do with your winter sweaters in June becomes a riddle so complex it requires all the power of your spatial creativity? So, while New York did not cause me to have this week, these little tragedies like losing one's job or one's Metrocard take on Brobdingnagian proportions here.

But I don't resent it. It's the nature of the beast, and I knew that walking into the mouth. In fact, the idea that all things are exponentially more difficult in the city is something that drew me to this place in the first place. I know - what kind of masochism is this? But I like the concept of working for one's survival, of being fully conscious of it: every day is a gift, an accomplishment. And if you really want something (even if that something is sweater-space) you simply cannot just sit back and expect it to come to you. You have to get it. It makes you evaluate your priorities: you learn to understand the value of hard work, and know which goals are worth working toward.

In theory, at least.

Here's a story: yesterday, I met a woman struggling up the steps of a subway exit with a large cart full of groceries. I will admit that I am not the most philanthropic of people. I rarely stop for the homeless, or for enthusiastic clipboard-wielders. But I will stop to help a person up the stairs. As one who has carted everything from a shag rug to a wheelchair across this fair city on the subway, I just can't help it. Anyway, this particular woman was very grateful for my help. It was clear to me, and probably to her, that she would have never made it up the stairs without a helping hand.

This phenomenon fascinates me. In the course of my subway travels I frequently come across people or families with loads - mostly baby carriages and related contraptions, but sometimes grocery carts and suitcases - far larger than they could possibly carry on their own. And I see, also, the kind counterparts who invariably offer a hand.

The helpfulness of these good people is an amazing and beautiful display of humanity in a city that is notoriously cold. But it's not this side of the good Samaritan coin that fascinates me, it's the other: the scores of people who, everyday, make their way to the train with carriages and suitcases and carts and the full knowledge that, without the charity of an as-of-yet-unknown entity, they will be stranded.

Everything is difficult in the city. It would be easy for this to create a ruthlessness in people, an every-man-for-himself-and-take-what-you-can-get mentality. And sometimes, I think, it does. But in spite of it, sometimes it also creates this. All of these people rely entirely upon the kindness of strangers simply to get from point A to point B. We live among people; our lives are inextricably linked. Activities like grocery shopping, or going to the airport, or taking the baby out in the stroller, which might be done privately, must be done socially here. Out of necessity, we respect each other, we care for each other, we must allow ourselves to be cared for as well. Somehow, counter-intuitively, the hardness of this place creates a softness, a necessary vulnerability. I love this.

Oddly, though, I myself have never accepted the proffered hand on the subway. I've struggled with my own share of groceries and suitcases, not to mention the occasional mammoth prop (the wheelchair, for example, which I used to tote from my apartment in Harlem to a bar in the East Village on a regular basis) and every time a stranger has offered me help, I've refused it. I have to learn to carry this myself, I think. If I don't, how will I manage to carry it when there's nobody around to help? I'll get soft, I won't be able to do it.

Now, as I'm suddenly beginning to feel insurmountably weighed down by the burdens of the city, I wonder if this is exactly my problem. Instead of bending in the wind, like the skyscrapers around me, I've been standing impossibly rigid, and my foundations are cracking. All this time I've lived in this place, loved this place because it was making me strong. But what if it turns out that strength is the last thing the city needs from me, or that I need from myself? Softness, perhaps, is not a terrible fate that I must avoid if I want to ensure my own survival; it's what I must yield to if I want to survive at all.

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