Alone. Together.

I listened to a fascinating interview today with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who has written a book about being single, and how the way that society thinks about single life has changed dramatically over the past century. What I found most interesting though is that, as an aside, really, he talked about his own personal life – that he is married with small children and living in New York City – and, when asked if he spent a lot of time alone, his response was “when you live in New York City, you don’t have much opportunity” to be alone – it becomes “a fantasy.”

Man, you got that right. Have you been to NYC? It’s impossible to carve out any niche of solitude (although it helps to wear your earbuds everywhere to drown out everyone else). When I was last there, I got on a bus from the Newark airport to Manhattan, where I could claim an entire row to myself & all my crap, and waves of relief washed over me immediately, “oh thank GOD. I am SO sick of being around all those people. In the airport shuttle, in the airport, on the plane. Jesus! I am just so glad to have some space to myself.” Then we stopped at the next airport terminal. And the next. And it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t going to be any personal space on this bus – it was just that I was the first stop! Then we got to the Madison Square Garden stop and I got off the bus only to navigate seas of people. Everywhere. All I wanted was to get to my hotel room and collapse. It was late Sunday night and I was exhausted after a long day of flying standby, hoping to make connections. And even after the respite that my claustrophobic hotel room provided, it was back to being thrown into throngs of people everywhere I went. It was impossible to find a seat on a bench to myself in museums. The stairs outside the public library in the park were just teeming with other solo folks just trying to make private phone calls in public. On the subway, at restaurants, in line at coffeeshops, on walks through Central Park – there is no space to call your own. I could never, EVER live there.

But it got me to thinking: would his thinking about single-hood and being alone have developed if he lived somewhere else, in some other context? Where the experience of having alone time was neither novel nor particularly noteworthy? Would it have struck him to study being by yourself if he weren’t living in a context in which the only way you can be alone is together, with milions of others? I think it’s a striking example of how one’s thinking can be, to at least some degree, a product of one’s circumstances and context…