Having spent the first twenty-two years of my life in the relative quiet and seclusion of the Berkshires, moving to the largest city in North American presented certain hardships. Perhaps the most difficult of these had to do with my attention. Everything was always grabbing it, trying to pull it in some direction. Store fronts with posters of girls with naked bellies continuously threatened to make me crash into oncoming pedestrians. Fascinating conversations in coffee shops caused me to forget my work. On the subway, I had to start burying my face in an iPhone game or else I risked getting overstimulated and having heart palpitations somewhere underneath the East river.
Gradually, though, I developed a skill New Yorkers have refined to the very highest level: laser-like attention.
New Yorkers are simultaneously the most perceptive and oblivious people on the planet. They can suss out someone’s personality, or guess with startling accuracy what neighborhood a person lives in, or whether they are single, at a glance. They can spot potential mates, or rivals, or business partners, from three blocks away. They can divine a person’s intentions by their posture, or their gait, or their tone of voice. The faintest puff of breeze, when intercepted at the proper angle, is a harbinger of a coming subway train. A faint glint of light a quarter mile up the avenue indicates a vacant taxi. The curls at the corner of the patrons mouths tells whether we should go into this bar or not. A millimeter of metal flashed for a split second says whether it’s a Rolex or a knockoff. The slightest off-color remark can cause deep offense.
At the same time, though, New Yorkers wade through a swarm of stimuli and pay them no mind. Everybody ignores that guy with headphones singing loudly on the train. We have the most intimate of conversations at tables literally inches from our neighbors, and everyone enters into a tacit agreement not to eavesdrop. We walk past countless suffering addicts and panhandlers without giving them a second thought. We muscle through nauseating smells in public bathrooms; we sleep through car alarms going off feet from our windows.
Life in this city sharpens the attention to the finest level. By sheer necessity we are forced to seize control of our otherwise fickle awareness and bend it to our will. And what we pay attention to determines the city that we live in. There are as many New Yorks as there are New Yorkers; there are as many New Yorkers as there are minds that attend. Our attention dictates what we see, what we hear, who we inspect and who we ignore. We can decide what we want to fill our senses with. We can decide what we want to tune out. It’s the blessing and a curse of living shoulder-to-shoulder with eight million other people who are, at their core, nothing more than bestowers of attention.