Alone and Smiling

Yesterday, I spent the entire day alone.

I woke up alone, ate breakfast alone, worked alone and took myself to dinner, alone. I sat at the noodle bar at Momofuku in the East Village, next to two men who were also alone. Not a word was spoken between the three of us, even though we occasionally elbowed one another as we reached for our water glasses, or picked up splintery, wooden chopsticks to resume eating.

After I finished my exorbitantly-expensive-yet-delightfully-delicious bowl of ramen, I had nothing else to do but head back to the apartment in West Harlem. I had long since thrown out my plans to hit the gym, but the thought of hurrying home to be alone for yet another evening was almost too much to bear.

I decided to take a walk. It was quite nice out. The rain had stopped, the sky was clear and 44 degrees actually felt comfortable.

I made my way towards Union Square, passing by quaint, candle-lit restaurants packed with couples and parties of friends, enjoying their meals with full glasses of red wine.

I began to notice how many other people were out, walking. Each person had a place to go, with such purpose.  People briskly passed me by, chatting on their cell phones, heading to yoga or home from the grocery store. Couples kissed on street corners. Some argued. Businessmen closed one last deal before entering their apartments. Women in heels hailed taxicabs. Children either played with toys, or slept in plastic-covered strollers. Dogs in sweaters relieved themselves.

As I walked and observed, the street numbers kept growing.  Soon, I had gained twelve blocks. Fascinated by the life around me, I continued on foot.

I decided to conduct an experiment. I would look at each person who passed, and try to make eye contact. If they met my gaze, I would hold it. If they stared back, I would smile.

I know. It’s totally creepy of me.

At first, it was hard to grab anyone’s attention. Most New Yorkers walk with their heads down or eyes glued to their cell phones. Granted, if it’s cold or raining out, we bury our faces in thick scarves or protect them with gigantic umbrellas.

Soon enough, people’s eyes began to meet mine. Almost instantly, however, they would break contact and look down, or away, towards traffic in the street.

I kept walking and searching faces.

At 5th Avenue and Bryant Park, I noticed a little red-headed girl with bouncy curls, holding tightly to her father’s hand. I surmised they had just come from the ice skating rink. I smiled at her sweet face, and then made eye contact with her father. Almost instantly, his face erupted into a beam of gleaming, white teeth. It was the widest, proudest smile I have seen in a while. I couldn’t help but feel my own smile grow, and, soon, tears sprang into my eyes.  

I started to feel less alone.

At East 42nd Street, across from Grand Central Station, I noticed a very attractive man in a business suit. I singled him out and stared him down. He felt my gaze, met it with intensity, and flashed a warm, almost-flirtatious smile. I blushed and hid my teeth.

I wanted to run after him but didn’t. It was enough just to be acknowledged. (All right, I may or may not have placed an ad in NYC’s “Missed Connections”.)

Still, street numbers grew. I strolled past the infamous Apple Store, horse and carriages, joggers and dog-walkers in Central Park, towards the Upper West Side. At times, I forgot my experiment and transformed into a woman with a purpose. As I quickened my pace, I became frustrated with slow movers and tourists (as all New Yorkers do), but ultimately remembered I had no reason to hurry home.

At 66th Street, across from Lincoln Center, I walked by a homeless man on my right, who was pushing a very heavy shopping cart. Two very expensive-looking, fur-clad women passed us at the same time.  The man boisterously called out to them.

“Hey, babies, how’s about ten dollars?” His voice mimicked that of Louis Armstrong’s, and I could tell he had a sense of humor.

I burst out laughing, and whirled around to watch the exchange. The rich ladies ignored the man, but his eyes met mine.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking!” I shouted to him.

He grinned, and opened wide his arms. “You gots to try, don’t ya? You have yo’sef a lovely evening, young lady!”

I beamed again.

“You, too!”

Sixty blocks and five miles later, with my heavy bag still slung over my now-aching shoulder, I decided to board the train at 72nd Street and ride the rest of the way up to West Harlem.  I slid my Metro card, pushed my hips through the turnstile, hurried down the stairs, stuffed my ear buds in and sat down in an empty, orange seat on the 3 train.

With music softly playing, I scanned the crowd. Slowly, subtlety, people began to smile at me. I almost forgot the Cheshire grin, still affixed to my face.

Eventually, smiles faded, and we returned to ourselves. Yet, somehow, I know we all felt a little less alone.

.

2 thoughts on “Alone and Smiling

  1. I absolutely agree with you! Human connection is so important, even if it’s in a grocery store or on the street. We never know what’s going on in a person’s life and even a smile can be helpful.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. ecn says:

    I’m a Southerner, so I smile at everyone, but it is really fun to do it in a northern city because it kind of freaks people out.

    I have friends (non-southerners) who find it weird that I talk to strangers, usually the check out people in grocery stores, etc. I don’t care because honestly, if my asking how someone’s day is makes their day better, then I feel better. It’s a great cycle.

    I think I would have teared up at the little girl and her dad too.

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