The Loneliest Numbers are One and Infinity
In New York your image is captured thousands of times a day. The red eyes of cameras hide under awnings and in subway tunnels, above storefronts and at busy intersections. Even if you escape their scrutiny you can’t avoid the eyes of fellow subway passengers, the glass walls of high rises, the hobbyists with binoculars peering down from their apartments, the tourists, the salespeople spilling out to offer samples as you pass on the sidewalk. Despite all this being watched, one can easily escape attention. Remember Where’s Waldo, the jumbled scenes so full that even a man in garish red stripes escapes notice? It takes more than brashness to be noticed in the city. It takes more than suffering. I’ve seen dozens of passengers cry on the subway and never asked what’s wrong. It would be different if it was just me and them, but I am only one member of a densely packed turning away. In the Bronx, hundreds of strangers strolled past Hugo Alfred Tale-Yax as he lay in a pool of his own blood after saving a woman from a knife attack. In Richmond, CA, at least twenty people watched a fifteen-year-old girl get gang raped in the courtyard outside her prom. A single observer may help a victim, but in groups we tend not to react at all, a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. According to complexity theory, when enough individuals group together they function as a unified body: a flock of birds, a colony of ants. None of them control the collective. Yet each, at any time, can break away. Where I live now, in Greenwood, South Carolina, I work at blending in. I wear neutral colors, have grown my hair long like a southern woman. Even so, one of my students told me recently that she saw me in traffic, that she recognized me through the barrier of my silver car. Ironically, I often feel claustrophobic in the absence of crowds. But when I see a student run into the bathroom crying, there is always someone following, asking what happened.
Laura Martin teaches writing at Lander University. She lives in South Carolina with a Basenji and a very active sourdough starter. You can find her writing at The Smart Set, The Establishment, Luna Luna and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.
Cover Photo by Daniel Lobo