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Teresa Lee Headshot

How to Be Human in New York

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It's almost a survival tactic to not be so human in New York because you simply can't be. You don't look at the homeless man at the corner, you turn your music up louder when the veteran asking for money comes on the subway, you avert your eyes from stranger all the times because you can't afford to know their story -- good or bad -- because your life alone seems difficult enough without other people's problems. I was reading Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York book last night. I'm a huge fan and I definitely think he's a great photographer, but it's very clear to me that HONY is so successful because of the little stories that come with each photograph. The captions serve as little peaks into each person's life. I see all the little details he photographs every day, I just don't stop to find out the story behind them. I don't care to learn about what makes other people human and not just a shell of a body riding on the subway next to me.

I've lived in New York now for exactly two-and-a-half years and I've learned that it's easy to lose your humanity here. You work hours that are inhumane. You almost have to be the Tin Man to date in this city where dating is easier without a heart. You treat your body as if you're super human with the mix of halal cart falafels and alcohol -- both at 3 a.m. In short, you become jaded. You discuss the perverse division of wealth and poverty in countries such as India at cocktail parties wearing $400 shoes, yet you forget that the divide is just as prevalent here with our $3,000 a month apartments that don't come with utilities, but apparently come with a homeless man at the corner.

After being in NYC for a while, I began to truly believe I deserved all the things I saw other people having. I would discuss with friends when our next job or promotion would be and with that salary increase what we could afford to buy or where to go on vacation next. You're surrounded by people who come from money and didn't even have to work for these things so the fact that you spend more than one month of rent on a bag seems well-deserved and a congratulatory sign of your hard work. I didn't truly buy into the rat race, but even for me, with each $18 cocktail I downed at yet another speakeasy or rooftop bar, I felt like I was getting closer and closer to the dream of success.

Then the city took away something I never realized I had to lose: my sister. I know, getting hit by a car can happen anywhere, but to me, it felt like the city itself took her away. I left New York for three months while I traveled through South East Asia. No Eat, Pray, Love magic bullshit happened to me. I didn't find peace or happiness -- I found anger and grief while I just happened to be surrounded by beautiful beaches in Thailand and Bali, which just enraged me more thinking about how she would never be able to experience all this beauty in the world.

And now I am back because I was already committed to grad school in the city -- Columbia being my first choice because my sister had matched as a resident at Columbia Medical Center. In any other city in which your sister died and you still live, you could at least move to the other side of town, live at least 10 miles away, or never have to be in that general vicinity again. But no, this is New York. I live within 15 blocks of where my sister was hit by a car. I am buying a bike because I can't fathom the idea of taking the subway to class every day and passing under the spot in which she died. I'm looking for alternatives to Columbia's student insurance because I'm scared the in-network hospital options that are closest will be where she worked or where I had to identify her body. I am scared to cross streets in a city that was made for walking because I am scared of oncoming traffic even though I have a green light. Every day, I feel my humanity because I feel how afraid of and close to death I am.

I'm still in my grief. I cry constantly in public among strangers and because due to the inhumanity of New Yorkers, it's great. Being polite in New York is averting your eyes to public tears because everyone knows that space and privacy is the one thing no one can afford in their tiny minuscule apartments. For me, it's much easier to cry among strangers than with my closest friends. Today was no different. I started crying while walking down 5th Avenue around lunch time. One of the people handing out flyers was at the corner and as per my usual tactics, I looked down and stuck my hand in my pockets and generally walked in a wider circle to avoid him. But this guy was particularly aggressive and stuck his hand right where I was walking until I finally glared into his face with tears streaming down my face. Suddenly, he looked frightened and retreated. In that moment, I wasn't just another bougie finance suit in Midtown during the lunch hour. I was human.

In a city like New York with over 8 million people all sharing the same space, it's easy to forget that everybody is just another human being like you. There seem to be clear hierarchies with stock brokers who's every second seems to be worth millions of dollar while the delivery boy's time isn't worth anything and you don't understand how it took him 45 minutes to arrive with your food. The only way to keep your humanity is to embrace it and everybody else's as well. Let yourself feel the sadness and the open wounds and the warm blood dripping down your leg. We don't have to be super heroes and we definitely are not meant to be.

I recognize that I am at a low point in my life so I cry in public. I also have no peripheral vision and run into door frames constantly, have butter fingers and drop my phone every day, and am always buried in my head and careless about splashing water all over the sink. I am human and imperfect and I'm okay with that. It wasn't fair of me today to give the flyer distributor the deadliest bitch glare. He was just doing his job and trying to make it in this crazy city, just like me. So, if you're reading this and a crying girl wearing red pants was rude to you in Midtown today, well, it was me and I apologize. Hey, I'm only human.