This week, spending Thanksgiving in Allentown with my cousin and my elder cousin Kim was my second time out of the city. We arrived on Wednesday night; ate a random assortment of cranberry bread, peanuts, spinach quiche, green beans and butter cookies that had been prepared by my grandmother; played two games of Chinese checkers; and then dispersed to our various sleeping arrangements: Kim slept on an inflatable bedroll and sleeping bag on the floor, and I took the couch (which, I might add, was a glorious improvement over my 5’7” rock-hard futon. I feel asleep instantly).
The next morning, I woke up exhausted. It was as though I had just run the half marathon the day before, instead of half a week ago. I wasn’t sore; I just felt as though every muscle and every bone in my body had turned into lead. If my grandmother hadn’t already been awake, bustling around and hovering over me demanding my breakfast order, I probably would have gotten up, gone to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, curled back up on the couch, and gone back to sleep. Even more shockingly, it was 8:00 a.m.—almost two hours past when I usually wake up for work on a Thursday morning.
I have never believed that New York City is a particularly exhausting place to live, or at least not for someone as capable and competent as me. I don’t feel particularly tired as I go about my business, or worn down, or battered. When I first arrived, I was certainly challenged by the tasks of navigating through masses of people on the streets, pushing my way onto subways, and forging into and out of crowded stores. However, I assumed I would become accustomed to (and more adept at) them, and I have. Granted, I still detest shopping, but I hated that activity to begin with, so doing it with an extra million people in my way—standing in front of me in the dressing room and checkout lines, grabbing stuff off of the shelves before I can get to it, blocking every available aisle with shopping carts—is understandably less pleasant. However, I don’t cringe before crossing the street headlong into a mass of people anymore, nor am I nearly as hesitant to pack myself body-to-body into a Manhattan-bound express train at 7:30 a.m. It’s not pleasant, but I’m not scared to do it, either.
Even so, despite all of my “adjustments” to city life, my bodily collapse on Thanksgiving morning gave me a new consideration for the toll that living in NYC may be taking. The way my body reacted mimicked exactly how it used to react when I would come home from college after first-semester finals. I would arrive home, blink at my family, eat a snack, and collapse into bed, only to awake the next morning feeling more tired than I had felt all semester.
But this isn’t the end of finals week. This is real life.
After a weekend of consideration, I concluded one possible reason for this instant, seemingly inexplicable exhaustion. In NYC, a person has to constantly have their guard up. On the sidewalk, in the subway, on the bus, in the park, at the beach—everywhere, you are constantly surrounded by people and must be aware of others’ presence. Must be prepared to be accosted by beggars and buskers asking for money. Must be ready to stay on your feet when jostled by passerbyers. Must be aware of and ready to protect your valuables, “just in case.” Once you leave the city, once you are, for one instant, alone, your body releases that defensive hold. Then, suddenly, you realize the debt that is created by the energy that you have demanded to keep constant watch over yourself and your surroundings. That is when the exhaustion comes: when the guard goes down. That is the only time the body can afford such a collapse.
Which leads to the inevitable questions: If I have only been here a few short months and have already needed to “collapse,” how will I fare over the span of several years? How does anyone manage? Is it a sign I should not be here, that I won’t make it? Or do I merely need to grow a thicker skin? And can I?