Urban Anthropology: Personal space

Living in the big city has forced me to make many changes in my thinking. Some are small adjustments, others more dramatic ones. Over the last two weeks, much of the world as I know it to be has been twisted, inverted, turned upside down. What I thought I knew, I don’t. The way I thought the world worked was wrong. Hurricane Sandy altered the very fabric of city life, the pace and rhythm of comings and goings. Neighborhoods lost power, were flooded, became significantly altered or destroyed. The subway, trains and buses were shut down. It’s funny how taken-for-granted habits, practices and norms can be interrupted suddenly. But people are resilient. They renegotiate the altered landscape around them. They respond, react, resist, and rebuild in creative ways. There is strength and power in their actions. Right now I’m trying to remind myself of my own strengths, to draw inspiration from the courage I’ve seen in the city in the face of daunting adversity. The urban anthropologist finds security in conceptualization. When and where does a person draw a line between renegotiation and conceptualization of space, intimacy and power? At what point should something not be dismissed as culturally different, but rather something that’s morally or ethically incorrect? Spatial relations work out differently here. You get pressed up against strangers in the subway. Parks are publicly shared democratized living space. You attend concerts with hundreds of fellow concertgoers who are vastly different from one another, sharing only their love for the music. I’ve learned not to be offended or on the alert when someone bumps me or brushes up against me. I’ve even come around to the idea that Internet dating is a thing that people do here. To me, it’s one of the most interesting context-specific but increasingly common reconceptualizing of space, intimacy and anonymity. You create a profile online. You can look at other people’s profiles. They message you, you message back. If all goes well, you set up a nearly instantaneous date without the wait! Next thing you know, mail-order brides will be all the rage. The people you meet are strangers who might not otherwise enter your social sphere or cross paths with you. Yet you share intimate little details of your life, like where you’re from, maybe a few hopes and dreams thrown in. It’s still weird. You start to construct an idea of who the person is in your head, only to find yourself horribly off base. Chemistry gets lost somewhere in the translation between the real and the imagined or constructed. Call me old-fashioned, but I think people need to have more in common than a professed love of travel, as written about on an online profile.

I found myself at a bar around three last Friday afternoon, throwing back more drinks than I wanted to, my head reeling. “When was the last time you blacked out from drinking?” I was asked. “You’re nursing that, your beer must be warm.” Commands, instead of offers. “We’re taking a shot.” Back in high school at Onteora, people would push, break, and disregard personal boundaries, the walls you tried to build. There was something more sinister in these taunts than the “Damn, girl” I used to get running on the streets. The guy who is saying these things happens to be my boss. I feel I can’t just throw out a sharp rejoinder or walk away. But I feel that every way I respond is somehow assenting. The worst is, when I try to stand up and defend myself, bossman and cohort seem to take even greater pleasure in seeing me get feisty, as though a fight or struggle makes it all the more fun. For me, a line’s been crossed into my personal space. He was seeking to break into a realm of familiarity and intimacy I didn’t want him to. And somehow he shook up, altered, and made me question my world’s foundations. Power had taken on a more sinister face. I plan to quit the job this week. Happy Armistice Day.

Alex Sveikauskas of Mount Tremper is writing about her first year in New York City.