In Praise of Impracticality

(Originally published in the NY Times)

I SAW a girl on a Manhattan-bound subway train one day wearing a knockoff Louis Vuitton head scarf and false eyelashes long enough to make a daddy longlegs envious. Her look — a sort of Sally-Bowles-does-Brooklyn — was complete with a matching knockoff L.V. handbag and umbrella. She was seated next to a young man who was as dashing in his way as she was adorable, but she took no notice of him as she was completely absorbed in a paperback titled something like “Becoming a Practical Thinker.”

I had an impulse to tear the book from her hands.

“Don’t do that,” I wanted to say. “Practicality will not get you where you want to go.”

I speak from experience. Every life-altering decision I’ve ever made has seemed, at first blush, misguided, misjudged or plain foolish — and ultimately turned out to be the opposite: every seemingly wrong person I’ve fallen for, every big trip I’ve splurged on, every great apartment taken that I could not realistically afford. And, really, what is pursuing writing but a case study in an impractical career?

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken was moving to New York. I came here just like millions of others before me and since: on a one-way ticket and with only vague notions of how I’d get by. I had no savings, and all my belongings were packed into a few suitcases. I landed at Kennedy Airport, bought my first MetroCard and put $10 on it. Had I known about unlimited-ride passes, no doubt I would have splurged on one, but even so, unlimited was how I felt: freed from what was, unworried about what came next. I was 48 years old.

From Kennedy, I took an A train headed for Far Rockaway. That was the wrong direction for getting to Manhattan, as New Yorkers will recognize and as I eventually figured out. But taking wrong trains, encountering unexpected delays and suffering occasional mechanical breakdowns is inevitable to any journey really worth taking. One learns to get oneself turned around and headed the right way.

I had visited New York many times over the years but living here, as I soon discovered, is a whole different ballgame. On the other hand, one doesn’t become a New Yorker by virtue of having a New York address. For me, the moment came the first time I left the city. I flew back to my hometown on Christmas Day to see friends. No sooner had the plane lifted off than I felt a pang of regret. To be a New Yorker is to be away from the city and feel like you are missing something, I wrote on a cocktail napkin. By this I didn’t mean missing the Rockettes at Radio City, New Year’s Eve in Times Square, or some amazing exhibit at the Met. In New York, there is always something amazing happening somewhere that one ends up hearing about only later.

What I meant instead was missing the evanescent, the eavesdropped, the unexpected: a snowfall that blankets the city and turns it into a peaceful new world. Or, in summer, the sight of the first fireflies in the park at twilight. The clop-clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestones in the West Village, mounted police patrolling late at night, or a lovers’ quarrel within earshot of all passers-by. Of course, what is music to my ears may be intolerable to another’s. Life here is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent.

It’s in the subway where I find the essence of this. Every car on every train on every line holds a surprise, a random sampling of humanity brought together in a confined space for a minute or two — a living Rubik’s cube. You never know whom you might meet, or who might be sitting next to whom. I prefer standing over sitting and would never doze or read when I ride. To do so would be to miss some astonishing sights — for instance, when two trains depart simultaneously and, like racehorses just out of the gate, run neck and neck for a time.

If it’s late at night, I try to get into the first car and stand up front, so I have a clear view through the windshield. As the subway barrels ahead, starlike lights flickering on either side, I feel as though I am on a rocket hurtling through deep time, with no idea where we will land, or how, or when.

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