I always need to be moving forward, in the literal sense. Rather, I get anxious standing still. If I miss a train, nothing is more painful than helplessly waiting for the next one to arrive. I prefer walking 30 minutes someplace if it means not standing on a subway platform for 10 minutes—even if the subway would still get me there faster. I don’t feel like there is any destination so important in New York that I need to get there quickly. Instead, I just need to get there on my own accord, fully controlling when I start and when I stop. Control—that’s what we like here.
To get by in the city, you really must embrace the fundamental civil liberty: do whatever the hell gets you through the day, so long as it doesn’t impede others from getting through their day. Everyone has an odd respect for the proselytizing nutjob on the morning commute who feels compelled to chant Bible verses—you let her do her thing and turn up the music in your headphones. Similarly, whenever I’m coy with someone, I get nervous about holding hands on the sidewalk, or walking slowly side by side—both are major hindrances to pedestrians needing to pass. My puppy love shouldn’t cause someone to miss his train.
In this manner of self-awareness, New Yorkers look out for one another. They’ve got great peripheral vision, and the best ones step aside when somebody is steamrolling past them. One night I got stuck on a Gramercy sidewalk behind a rotund Midwestern couple, clearly visiting town—we know it when we see it. They easily heard my approaching footsteps but never yielded, so I stepped off the curb and breezed by them. “How rude!” the woman exclaimed. “Why not just say ‘excuse me?'” Had I bothered to acknowledge her, my (now rehearsed) answer would have been: “I’m being polite by not bothering you. You were being rude by not moving for me.” This is also why I walk terribly fast: if I move quicker than everyone else, I will always be honoring that fundamental civil liberty.
If you want to truly understand the rhythm of New York, go to Grand Central Station at rush hour. You’ll see hundreds of people weaving, side-stepping, anticipating at such a high pace, but never running into one another. Cooler yet is two packs of pedestrians, crossing the street toward each other when the light turns green. They merge into one, everyone communicating with subtle eye contact or body signals, then the mass separates again, nobody having crashed. I am proud to be part of this rhythm, and try to never disrupt the synergy—I hate knowing that my existence might send some other being bouncing slightly off of his or her intended course, or that I am actually a variable to one’s success and another’s failure.
Affecting someone negatively—this is the fear I had knowing that I was helping Joanie with her career, and about calling the shots the way Sam has to. It’s easy to take direction, harder to give it when it involves telling someone to turn left, or to stop, or to move faster. You control that person’s liberty. You set the rhythm. In talent management, if your plan fails, it might mean he or she can’t make rent or pay loans or has to go back to waiting tables, and it certainly discredits your future directives. I hope I will always be Midwestern in this way—aware that I am capable of hurting someone.
I was losing ground on preserving this sympathy—or at least on being able to please everyone. Firing Joanie’s former band mates was a good example: they were in the way of her success, and I knew she needed to drop them. I saw them as faulty instruments, not as two men who needed to support themselves and who ran in the same social circles as Joanie. She informed me that her core group of friends—which included these two men—had stopped inviting her to dinners and parties, and had ceased coming to her shows. My demand robbed her of her best friends. She told me so casually, as if she got over it pretty quickly. I mulled on it for a week, wishing I could make things right for her, if only to feel better about myself.
More and more, I was finding myself making commands. At work, Sam was trusting me to coordinate major meetings for his mid-level clients without him being on the call. For Simon’s birthday I ordered a carrot cake, but the bakery wrote “Happy Birthday Simmon” in icing, and I refused to accept it, even when they offered it for free. A year ago, I would have found it hilarious and paid full price, error included. Peter was going through it at work, too—he had fired a publishing assistant and knew she would have to move home to Milwaukee. She left his office in tears, and he closed the door behind her, before weeping into his Brooks Brothers pocket square.