A new New Yorker edges in

People in Manhattan somehow manage to maintain space around themselves. They've worked out a method for sliding by one another in buses and restaurants and store aisles. They hardly ever touch.

Even when you're alone, life is cramped in Manhattan. The first week in my tiny new living room-study-loft on the Upper West Side, I ran into walls, bumped into the banister, and found myself apologizing to door jambs. The uneven hardwood floor hurtled me down the steep steps. Pencils rolled off tables, and the soup slanted. The second night, coming down from the loft, I fell downstairs.

"What in the world are you doing in Manhattan?" I asked myself. "At your age, you should be baking cookies for your grandchildren in your hometown." The fact that I didn't have either grandchildren or a hometown escaped my attention.

Deep within lay the suspicion that an older woman should not be ambitious. She should be content where she is. Bloom where she is planted.

But we're not flowers, after all. We have legs. We're not doomed to stay in the same spot. We don't have to wait patiently and humbly for a master gardener to do whatever master gardeners do. So I pulled up my own roots, shallow though they were, and found new dirt in Manhattan.

There have been adjustments. One of them is spatial. On my first night in town, I was pushing my basket up and down the narrow aisles of the Broadway Farm market at West 85th. I waited for a woman to select a can of sardines. And waited. And waited.

She finally looked at me - a last resort in Manhattan - and gave my basket and me an impatient directive to pass. I didn't believe there was room for all three of us. But there was. And all that time when I thought she was reading the sardine labels, she was acutely aware of me and my location.

People in Manhattan can see behind themselves when facing forward. They know what's back there and how fast it's closing in on them. For instance, if you're walking along, minding your own business, and the pedestrian in front of you comes to a sudden stop without signaling, you know he or she is from somewhere else.

Only tourists apologize. If a diner says he's sorry for squeezing by your table, you know it's an out-of-town thigh that's just grazed the edge of your dinner plate - and that the restaurant owner must get 2.6 round diners into each square foot if he's to make a profit.

In subways and buses, the rule is to force as many people as possible into one conveyance without inciting violence. Being offended won't help. Moral indignation and self-righteousness are unknown to New Yorkers. Outrage doesn't work. What's the point?

When someone pushes in front of you, it's generally without malice. They're just trying to get through their day. Before nightfall you may do the same to someone else.

And New Yorkers do not touch.

They may smell one another's perspiration. They stand within inches of one another's faces and hair. Their sleeves, shoulder pads, jackets, shoes, purses, bags, computer cases, and backpacks touch. But people, themselves, do not -unless it's required in a very crowded situation. In that case, it becomes impersonal because everyone agrees it's not really touching.

It's just sliding by surfaces and edges on your way to wherever you're going.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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