You’re driving to Manhattan the Friday before the holidays – it’s the worst possible timing, but when the traffic into Holland Tunnel finally clears, you hurtle blindly through its 9000 feet, speeding away beneath the Hudson River. A sharp turn spits you out onto Canal Street at the border of SoHo and Tribeca, and suddenly you’re here: New York City, 8 million other people, skyscraping giants all around you.
For scale, the newly completed Freedom Tower looms at a height of 1,776 feet. The Empire State climbs 1,454 feet from the ground to the tip of its spire. 432 Park Avenue, Bank of America, Chrysler, New York Times, and the One57 round out the 1000-club of New York City’s super-tall monuments to human aspiration. New York can make you feel very, very small – but you know from experience that the sensation isn’t just a question of scale. Packed into just 23 square miles, Manhattan is one of the densest urban environments in the world, and no time of year makes that clearer than when the holiday crowds come out.
Sure, people shop everywhere; but here in New York, it’s an art form – one you have yet to master. The barrage of sounds, smells and sights in the city’s impressive commercial machine never turns off, inundating your total sensorial capacity. You collide with wave after wave of indifferent New Yorkers and profusely apologize to each one, none of whom muster so much as a grunt in response. You stand delirious, waiting at a crosswalk in the concrete valley between 6th and Broadway as obscured faces stare back at you from the tinted windows of taxis passing by. Everyone seems to know where they’re going but you, and you are amazed, terrified, immersed and alone all at the same time. Have I mentioned that New York can make you feel very, very small?
But occasionally, you catch glimpses of reassuring clarity. A couple stands quietly, close, while picking out ornaments at Bryant Park. A kid’s breathless breath fogs up the glass of a holiday window, mystified by the sheer magic of it. Even that indifferent sea of people is something to behold—watching a crowd of shoppers from the mezzanine deck of Macy’s, you spot a confused young woman smiling in that bashful, apologetic way as she tries desperately not to be in everyone’s way, and you see that all the people here – all 8 million – are still trying to figure this out.