Profile: Getting Intimate in the City

Lila Miller, A&E Editor

“What makes your heart hurt? What makes you sad? What upsets you?” I aimed to find strangers in New York to answer those questions in an attempt to prove that New Yorkers (and people in general) really just crave understanding in an apathetic world. 8.623 million people live in New York City.

People flock to the city like pigeons searching for something. Too often, New Yorkers are characterized as impersonal.

Scores of tourists flaunt the iconic I HEART NY, but what truly lies at the heart of New York dwellers? I asked six random strangers a few questions and took polaroids of them afterward. I lingered, talking while the film developed, and ultimately, we were all exposed.

Stephen was a security guard. I introduced myself, explained that I was a writer, and asked him what has made him sad, in New York, in his life currently, or in memories.

“My father passed away when I was very young,” he says, but left the cause of death not up for discussion. He talks about Mister Rogers and how this generation’s children don’t progress and don’t have time to themselves to figure out how to express how they’re feeling because our world is so fast-paced.

Stephen the Security Guard. Photo by Lila Miller.

I met an anonymous man on an elevator, and mumbled a question like,

“Do you want to hear my elevator speech?” He listens to my questions with a small laugh and deprecating smile.

“What upsets me?” After a pause, he continues, “aging.” When I asked if I could take his photo, he was unwilling. After one moment of vulnerability, he went back to being just as closed off as the elevator doors that separated us.

The elevator doors that separate the writer and anonymous man. Photo by Lila Miller.

In Times Square, I spotted Mickey Mouse from the Happiest Place On Earth. When I asked him my questions, his pal Luigi had to help him out, as he spoke little English.
Luigi explained that he was learning English in school. I saw how difficult it must be to live in a country where you aren’t fluent. How do you connect with other people if you can’t speak the same language?

An anonymous Mickey Mouse in Times Square. Photo by Lila Miller.

On the street, I met a Ticket Tellers comedy promoter. I asked him my questions. At first, he mentioned quickly that he had somewhere to be, but acquiesced.  

“People don’t really try to understand each other anymore and we’re always blaming one another,” he sighed and looked away. On to the next one.

Ticket Tellers comedy promoter, near Chinatown in NY. Photo by Lila Miller.

I boarded the N train and noticed an ad on the wall of the train that bragged, “there’s only one city where everyone has a PhD in minding their own business.”

Taking a glance around the subway car, my eyes settled on a freckle-faced boy of about ten. He wore a somber expression but as a previous school teacher, I knew enough about parents not to ask him why he felt that way.

His younger brother absent-mindedly swung a bright yellow bag emblazoned with a blue Lego on his arm. Maybe he didn’t get the toy he wanted. Maybe it was something bigger than that. Eventually, we all learn to make peace with the unknown.

People sit so close on the subway. The peanut M&Ms a man was vigorously popping into his mouth at increasing intervals made me salivate, though I had found the grand M&M store on Broadway overwhelming and its wares tacky at best.

As I disembarked on Canal Street I heard a man yelling more and more fervently,

“This is the wrong station!” He repeats himself several times before a woman says, “…okay!” in a resigned fashion.

Next, I met Drew. Drew worked for a news stand and freelance writes and edits. I ask him my questions, he pauses and looks elsewhere.

“The things I have the ability to change myself. Those things seem to come in mind. I’m pretty optimistic. Yeah, I’d say I’m pretty positive,” he sums up. I never trust people that appear to be happy all the time. It just seems disingenuous.

Drew the Freelance Writer. Photo by Lila Miller.

I asked one last person what weighed their heart down. Ellie worked at an independent clothing stall, Rora and an artisanal ice cream stall called Sweet Nova. She had the kind of job that showed she didn’t really need a job at all really. I asked her my questions.

“What makes me sad? It depends on the day. Sometimes, it’s that my parents are going to die and I’m going to have to live a portion of my life without them. But overall? I think it’s that I’m so privileged. I kind of have everything…and I’m still sad.”

the lost girl
Ellie. Photo by Lila Miller.

In New York where walls of people cross the streets and rush by each other, I was able to forge a connection with six strangers on what makes us human. For a few hours on one afternoon, I was able to look under the cloak of anonymity that New York City provides. I think sadness and loneliness are linked. Loneliness is the human condition. At the root of loneliness, people really just want to be heard and understood.