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Dating in New York City: The Rat Race Redefined.

rat-AP

Months before I moved to New York City I made the mistake of watching a documentary about rats in the city.  I learned rats could chew right through cement and squeeze their entire bodies through holes no bigger than the size of their skulls. Rats must constantly gnaw on anything in order to keep their always-growing teeth a manageable size.  Their jaw muscles exert a shocking 12 tons of pressure per square inch.  Rats spread disease, fleas and cause fires from chewing through electrical wiring.  In moments of extreme stress they attack each other and will even resort to cannibalism.   After that film, the mere sight of a battle-scarred super-sized rodent with a flesh tail would cause my heartbeat to quicken and stomach to churn.  I found myself in fits of panic if they got more than a few feet from me.

When my ex and I moved from Brooklyn to Washington Heights we discovered a fairly developed rat nest in the roots of a tree in the sidewalk.   In the rats would scurry from their nest across the sidewalk and into the alley of a building two doors down from our own.  We’d hear screams of people who had made the mistake of walking on our side of the street night after night.  My ex-husband counted as many as 20 rats at a time in the courtyard of our neighboring building.  We’d watch in despair as they would chew perfect tunnels through solid concrete the city poured over their nest..  Animal control repeatedly set poison traps, and laid wife mesh over the concrete and nothing seemed to stop them.

Then one night, out of nowhere my reaction towards the monstrous creatures changed.  I was coming home late at night after a comedy gig and saw one, all by himself sniffing around the subway platform searching for food.  He had half of a tail and large patches of baldness along with matted fur.  This rat wasn’t doing so well, and for the first time I saw desperation in his movements.  He just didn’t run around like every other rat I’d ever seen before, he seemed panicked and fearful.

I couldn’t help but see a part of myself in this poor dying creature.  When I first moved here, I was one half of a couple.  I had dreams and ambitions that always included the man I thought was the love of my life.  Fourteen years later after the terrorist attack on 9-11, a city-wide blackout, Hurricane Sandy, a devastating divorce, the premature death of too many friends, suicidal thoughts and crippling depression I found myself alone.  I’m not as young as I once was, my reproductive capacity shrinks by the minute and I’m deeply damaged.   In order to pay my bills I work constantly.  Some weeks I might get one day off, or work nonstop without a break for days on end.

There are those who criticize me for choices I’ve made, things I’ve written or said, and my “bad” attitude.  Of course they have no idea what goes on in my head, or how difficult it might be to come back after such a devastating loss.  Things haven’t completely healed and in the past six years I’ve rarely felt strong emotion towards a man for any extended period of time.  I don’t know if I’ll live the rest of my days alone.  In many ways surviving after the breakup has been harder than the split itself.  One day turns into another and nothing changes.

I get harassed on a daily basis with men leering at me, shouting out filth, blocking my path or even grabbing me on the street.   Most of the guys who express interest in me only want sex, and will literally not even touch me after the fact.  It’s as if I’ve left the room and might as well leave, which is usually what I do anyway.  I’ve numbed myself enough to stand it, and swallowed pride and emotions with the increasing dexterity.  If that’s what I need to do to survive then so be it., I survive, but only barely.

So when I looked at that rat, desperately hunting for food, doing nothing more but trying to make it to the next day I felt empathy for his plight.  I didn’t want to go near the poor animal, and I’m not kidding myself about wild urban rats. They’re a dangerous scourge, the city is right to try to eradicate them and control their numbers.  Regardless he was still a little life who never did anything but try to make it to the next day.  For reasons beyond his control he was born into a crowded metropolis and will probably die of starvation, poison, or at the teeth of another rat soon enough.  For the first time in my life, I had compassion for something I had once reviled.  Chances are he never ate another rat, or attacked a human, he was probably just an average rat living off a garbage and dodging subway cars.   I sat down on a bench a safe distance away from him and watched his darting and scheming until the next train came.

As much as I’ve been through, and as hard as things get, my struggles and pain have been a gift.  Had I stayed married and enjoyed the success of my ex-husband’s thriving career I might have never found empathy and compassion for that sad little animal.  I would take what I had for granted, and failed to see that every new day is truly a blessing.  I had to lose everything to become more human.  My life might not get easier for many years to come, or it could change in an instant. I’m just happy I’m still here and I don’t fear the rats anymore.

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When Saying “Smile” is the rudest thing a person could do

Teen Angst

On the day after Christmas, I sat in the airport and tried to keep myself occupied before my flight.  I was trying to play the NYTimes Crosswords app on my phone, but I just couldn’t focus.  My carry-on had a couple of books I knew I had to read, and a frivolous magazine.  Nothing sparked my interest.  The TV screens suspended from the ceiling were broadcasting CNN and it was some inane story about the economy.  No matter how hard I tried, I could only think of one thing – her face.  It was the face of a woman who was far too young to die.

On Christmas day a year earlier my cousin dropped dead of a massive heart attack.   She was in her late forties, unmarried, and was only in town for the holiday.  Multiple underlying medical conditions contributed to her unexpected death, but it was still a huge shock to everyone that she was gone.  Two days after Christmas her funeral was hastily arranged to allow as many relatives from out-of-town to pay our respects.  She was twice divorced with no children, but had three beloved cats.  On that side of the family I have 16 cousins, and she was the first of our generation to die.

Divorced and childless myself, I couldn’t help but think of my face in that casket.  Would I suffer a similar fate?  I also felt horrible that I didn’t get a chance to see her one last time and I worried for my aunt.  My Aunt was the oldest five and had already buried her husband and daughter-in-law.  Sitting alone in the airport on the anniversary of my cousin’s death caused me to grieve all over again.  As I sat there staring off into vacant space, tears started to roll down my eyes.  And then I heard him – a booming voice with a thick Southern twang.

“Hey pretty lady, you know you ain’t got nothing to cry to be sad about.  Come on and show me a SMILE.”  He was an average looking white man in his mid-thirties with messy hair and coveralls pushing a large piece of equipment.

“Why don’t you mind your fucking business!  Asshole!” I snapped back, giving him some New York City attitude.

I could tell by the look in his eye and his attitude he didn’t care at all about my emotions or what I might be going through.  This was his feeble and pathetic attempt to try to get me to talk or engage with him.  As if a woman couldn’t just sit there and have sad thought.  With that one phrase he wasn’t actually telling me to cheer up he was negating my feelings.  I was just sitting there completely minding my business.  I wasn’t dressed in anything garish or attention seeking.  A black down coat, black jeans and a sweater, minimal makeup and my hair wadded up in Saint Louis cardinals baseball cap.  Why wasn’t I allowed one moment of solitude?  Would he had dared to snap out such an order to a man sitting by himself?

I had a completely opposite situation once while riding the subway.  A man I now refer to as rebound #2 had just abruptly broken up with me.  My post-divorce depression was crippling, and I really shouldn’t have tried to date anyone.  I had just started treatment and was on medication but I was nowhere near recovery.  So that day on the Q train I just couldn’t hold it in anymore and had a total meltdown.  As I sat there sobbing, a woman sitting across from me simply said,

“Are you OK?”

She was tall, well dressed, close to my age, with dark skin and beautiful long braids.  I was so taken aback by her reaction.  I hadn’t even realized I was crying like that in public.  My depression had completely taken over me, and here was this total stranger expressing real empathy. At first I tried to get it together and said,

“I’m fine.”

She looked and me and responded,

“You don’t look fine.  It’s OK.  We’ve all been there.”

Then it all came spilling out,

“I just got a divorce, and I can’t date anyone.  No one wants me.  No one will ever want me. I’m damaged goods.”

The woman came over and sat next to me.  She told me about her own traumatic breakup, and how she had recently met a great guy and had renewed hope in life.  I realized quickly, she didn’t want anything from me, she didn’t ask for my card or information and she didn’t give me hers.  She put her arm around me and told me it was going to be OK and I wiped my tears and we just shared about 10 minutes of a real human connection.  I got off the train and waved goodbye.  It was one of the nicest moments I’ve ever had with a stranger.  She didn’t negate my pain, she acknowledged it.  We all have suffering sometimes and just hearing another person say,

“I’ve hurt too.  I’m sorry you’re in pain.”

It was enough to stop the spiral if for only a second.  Having a stranger scream, “Stop crying you don’t have any problems” is the exact opposite.  We all fall down.  We all go through rough times and we should mourn and give ourselves time to grieve.

When I recently found out that a friend of mine died suddenly at the age of 45 I was on a sidewalk in Union Square.  I literally fell down and had to brace myself on a fence to keep myself from completely collapsing.  As I struggled to make it to the train, get home and keep myself together all I could think of was…please don’t say anything to me…please leave me alone….I just want to get home.  Luckily for me that day, I was given peace.  I worry I might have physically assaulted a man who shouted “Smile honey you don’t have anything to cry about” Luckily no one was that rude or stupid.  Sadness is a perfectly healthy emotion and sometimes it doesn’t come in nice and neat ways.  We will find ourselves breaking down in public.

Making the decision to approach a total stranger in distress is a tricky one.  It’s sort of like going up to a wounded animal.  Will they try to attack back?  Will they go into shock?  Will we make things worse?  As I’ve said multiple times on this blog, the best thing anyone can do for another person in crisis is simply listen.  Don’t tell them what to do, don’t try to fix their problems just hear them out.  But whatever you do, don’t scream “Smile.”

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