New York is an indoor city. Its buildings lean close together, and its geography is a blinking beehive, a living wall of windows constellated like stars. In the depths of winter, a version of the city in which everything can be accessed via a network of underground tunnels seems just out of reach—I imagine the subways expanded right up to my door, so that I would never have to touch the surface. Manhattan and Brooklyn are two small islands hollowed out into labyrinths, their interiors crowded with life. The famous skyline is a bunch of buildings full of small rooms—everything that represents this place indicates indoor spaces.
Cities start out as museums and end up as rooms. When we first move to a city, we are determined to take advantage of all its public spaces, the parks and the monuments, the free concerts and the block parties. The promise New York makes is that for all the bedrooms and garages and kitchens and hallways you can’t have here, there is a world right outside your front door, full of things not available in places where you could afford a house. When you first arrive, especially if you arrive when you’re young, every night is a party and every party promises to make you cool. For those of us who can barely afford to live here, which is the vast majority of those of us who live here, the public city is a grand consolation prize—you could stay inside anywhere, but what you find when you go outside here is unequaled by any of those other places.
We think that the longer we stay in the city, the better we will get at taking advantage of its public offerings, its available spaces. But in reality, we turn inward, our attention held by our tiny nests, our own indistinguishable pinprick of light in the skyline. The city is a public monument constructed out of private stories. The private spaces we carve out for ourselves become what matters. The best party is a house party, and the only thing that’s better than a house party is canceling all your plans and staying home, curled up inside your small box of light in the cave-wall of the city. The only thing that’s ever felt the way I thought a party would feel—before I had ever gone to a party—is a weekend night when I have no plans but to stay home.
This tendency to turn inward, apparent in even New York’s most gregarious residents, is further fueled by the obligation to be busy. Looking busy is a sickness in New York. To look busy, to demonstrate how over-scheduled, how burdened by promises and appointments you are, is a way to prove that you matter, that you are wanted. An overfull calendar is a hiding place where no one can get you. We build our schedules up like fortresses. The obligation to be busy, just like the obligation to go outside and take advantage of the public city, creates a longing toward the opposite, until nothing else feels as good as canceled plans.
In a city where both space and time are rarities, any kind of emptiness is a mouth-watering luxury. Think of the Apple stores, demonstrating their products as synonymous with wealth by staging them in cavernous blank spaces—emptiness in a crowded city feels like abundance. We stay in because the nothingness of staying in is like a large soft bed, the opposite of the hard rush of bodies from one social commitment to the next. The longer I live here, the more I want to stay home in my tiny apartment every night.
The only redeeming feature of the winter is that it gives a built-in excuse to cancel plans and stay home. But even in summer, when the weather itself pushes us outside, when it insists we should go rub up against sweaty skin to sweaty skin, nothing is better than staying home all night collapsed under the air conditioner. The moment when I’ve wanted all day to cancel, and the person with whom I have plans cancels first is like a narcotic – I am blameless and free, sinking back into the couch cushions, unobligated to stand up, to put on makeup, to push through the weather, the subway, and the city-smells, to present myself to the outside world. Privacy in New York is quite literally a luxury good—there is very little of it to go around, and to have any large quantity of it requires a vast financial investment. The complete privacy of a night staying home in the air conditioning and looking at one’s phone is an affordable decadence.
My cat loves being in cardboard boxes—the smaller the box, the happier she is, even if it seems like there’s no way she could fit. When a box arrives, she gets in and stares up at me defiantly from the box, daring me to take it away from her. She’ll stay there for hours, purring like a tiny radiator, utterly content to be bound up within cardboard walls. We are all cats in boxes in our tiny apartments here, longing for the firm hands of walls and a small space to hold us together, to keep us secret from the public city.
Illustration by Alisha Sofia