I wandered The Strand Bookstore’s three floors for over an hour, picking things up and putting them down. It was early January in Manhattan, when the sky is dark by late afternoon. That time of year, the whole island feels stretched out and threadbare after having hosted an unthinkable number of people through the holiday season. Wandering the stacks in the belly of the bookstore that early evening, knocking into everything with my umbrella, I would have believed you if you’d told me it was the middle of the night.
I was searching for a present for a belated Secret Santa gift. The friend I was shopping for–we hadn’t really caught up since college. I knew that she was at med school in Texas, but I wasn’t even certain which school or what sort of medicine she was studying. I second-guessed everything I got close to buying. I stood there in my puffy coat, sweating, contemplating a journal she probably wouldn’t like, and I gave up. I had come all the way downtown just to buy something at this store, and I left.
Back outside I wandered towards pizza I had smelled on my way there. The bookstore and the city felt so big that even the smallest decisions were impossible. I had no present to show for all my searching, and it’s an hour-long train ride back home to my apartment in Washington Heights.
There’s nowhere to stop and think in New York. Any slowed motion, any hesitation and you’re immediately in someone’s way. You must always know exactly where you’re going. You must always need to be somewhere. If you don’t, find a Starbucks and buy a bottle of water or something and use their free wifi to plot out your next move in detail. Keep indecision out of the sidewalks and out from under the salty, soggy boots passing you on the left and on the right.
Since moving here over a year ago now, I have felt continually shoved along by that brutish mayhem. The pace breathes on the backs of my ears, throws its hands up, rolls its eyes, and finds some way to get around me because I’m moving too slowly. And I’m just trying to sneak glances at the navigation on my phone without acting like I’m lost.
I feel really lost a lot.
I told a stranger that. On the way home from The Strand Bookstore that night. Empty-handed with a dollar slice in me and the beginnings of a doable gift idea, I climbed down into Union Square Station to start the journey back north to The Heights.
Trudging through the tunnels down below, I spotted a few people queued up at a folding card table against the wall of a corridor. The guy sitting at the table was my age. He had a camping chair and a typewriter and a sign that said FREE POEMS. So I stopped.
And from my place in line for a poem, I saw passersby slow down every few seconds to snap a picture. It was ceaseless. You could tell which social media platform they were using by how they moved. People using Snapchat kept walking, holding an index finger on their screen to grab the 10-second video. People using Instagram would take the time to get the shot they wanted. Something they could throw filters on and draft captions for while their train was in the tunnels and then post as soon as they pulled into a station and had enough service.
We did look perfect, I’m sure. A line of bundled people leaning against the cracking tile wall of the station, waiting for our turn to speak to the poet with the fingerless gloves and the vintage typewriter. A post like that, maybe in a modified Nashville or a faded X-Pro II, would verify that your life in Manhattan is exactly as romantic and eccentric as you’d promised yourself it would be. The woman in front of me in line was actually trying to Snapchat this guy in the act of writing the poem. He asked her to put her phone away. She did so pleasantly but made sure to get a picture of his FREE POEMS sign as she left.
When it was my turn, my phone was deep in my pocket. I didn’t even have my fingers on it, I swear. The poet asked me to tell him something he could use to get started. I could barely hear him over the din of the transit and the drumming buskers at the end of the corridor. He said it could be anything.
I thought about my trip to the bookstore and the relentless current of people rolling by us now, the current by which I had been swept along until I stepped into his line. I thought about the room waiting for me at the end of my trek home to The Heights, a room that is fine but lonely.
“I feel really lost a lot,” I said. It looks like heavy handed writing to me now, but it was cold, clean honesty in the moment. Because I do. Constantly lost. I feel like I am someone I haven’t hung out with since college. I wouldn’t know what to get me for Christmas either.
He pounded the keys for a few minutes, thanked me for my honesty, asked me for a tip. Then he pulled a little quarter sheet out from between the roller and the bar. I read the poem over and over again on the train. It got a little crumpled in my pocket when I transferred from the R to the C, but I keep it by my bed now. In my just-fine room. Not because it really resonates with me and only a little bit because the typeface is cool. It feels tidy, I think, to see the lostness confined to so small a page.