Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Outside, Looking In

The morning light caresses my cheek as the sun shines through the horizontal slats of the bamboo blinds.  All is still, save for the distant hum of traffic, the gentle roar of a plane and a neighbor's dog barking just a few doors down.  It's early, so early that the sun is still tucked beneath its cloudy covers.

This is my ninth day in Brooklyn, ninth of my planned ninety nine days to live here, and it's the first morning I've woken before 9am.  In fact, it’s much more before 9am.  The red numbers of the clock radio blink 6:39.
Yesterday, I resolved to rise early to explore the city as it wipes the sleep from its eyes.  I dress quickly, devour toast with jam and peanut butter, gulp down hot ginger tea and dash out in to the streets.  I'm eager to catch the rays as they shine their orange hue on the sides of the red and white brick houses.
It's easy to make my way around my neighborhood now.  I've been exploring it daily since I got here, so it's become familiar and comfortable.  Comfort makes me antsy, so this morning I challenge myself to walk further, beyond the streets I've come to know, down unfamiliar sidewalks and in to unfamiliar neighborhoods.
The streets rise from 5th Avenue to 6th and I'm soon crossing 49th.  Only a handful of people are scattered about, including market owners sweeping the dust and leaves from their storefronts, and men hovering in doorframes, drinking coffee or smoking or both.  Loose papers ride a gust of wind and dance down the sidewalk from corner to corner.  Some will come to rest in alleys where they’ll slowly integrate and disintegrate with the other trash, while others will spend the day tumbling down the pavement, skirting from street corner to street corner.
The air is early autumn cool.  My breath is visible and my fingertips are chilled.   I plunge my hands in to my jacket pockets and pass by shops bearing names and descriptions in what I believe to be Hebrew. The bright pink and yellow signs of a Polish store "specializing in Polish phone cards and Polish sausage" catch my eye as the brilliant colors leap out from among the other store windows that are covered with dark colored posters.

A small group of Indian men are huddled on the sidewalk in front of a corner Deli, smoking and talking.  I smile and nod and one of them nods in return, while the others only stare quietly back at me.  I feel their eyes affixed on my back and then, as if my walking by was like a small gust of wind, I'm forgotten, and they return to their conversation and to their cigars.

Further and further through unfamiliar neighborhoods, I crisscross streets and avenues slowly filling with school kids and workers. A sudden awareness of my Self catches in my throat and I choke slightly on an inhalation of breath.  A gloomy cloud wafts over me, and the word Outsider leaps from my consciousness and in to my heart. 
On this street, on this day, this grey day, ripe with promise and purpose, I become acutely aware that I’m a stranger in a strange land here.  I exist on the outskirts of the daily lives of the people who call these neighborhoods home.  This community is a weaving of intricate patterns, and each individual here is an integral part of the fabric. 

I'm here, perched on the outside, looking in.

A feeling of complete disconnection from my Self and from where I am, slowly settles over me, resting on my shoulders, and I shift my gaze to the dirty sidewalks, my self-assured walk has long since become a stumbled shuffle.

I’m ashamed and I’m embarrassed. I don't know anything about these people or this place.  Everything is foreign to me: the languages, the cultures, the customs, the religions, the food.
The taste of my ignorance is bitter on my tongue as I work my way back through the winding streets, passing 35th, 21st, and finally to 5th, to my neighborhood.  My neighborhood.  This neighborhood where I’m a stranger, an outsider, just a visitor and here for a very short time.

Too short a time to really get to know the Singh's, the neighbors on the first floor that I often hear coming and going early in the mornings and late in the evenings.  Too short a time to get to know the young Korean girls who skip by the house every day after school, or the small group of older, Russian women who perch on the benches across the street on Sundays, filling the air with their boisterous laughter, and taunting the bent and balding Chinese man who runs the Deshi Deli on the corner to join them.  

This is the familiarity that I crave, the experience that I want here.  The sense of neighborhood and family, to be an integral part of the fabric of a community. To be on the inside, looking out and feeling the great depth and the vast width of this city, drinking in the sense of home.  Instead, I'm just a stranger here, caught in the clean and tidy top layers of a tourist's New York, on the outside looking in.

Tomorrow morning, when the light again peeks through the slats of my bamboo blinds, I'll rise, tuck my ignorance down deep in to the bottom of my running shoes, and I'll walk again.  And I'll keep walking, until my embarrassment and disconnection is just a dark smudge, blending in with all the others on the corner of 49th Street and 7th Avenue.



Sara said...

Lovely writing!

Christina Whiting said...

Thanks Sara. I rewrote this piece several times and am still not quite happy with the ending. But I'm getting there.