On a Wednesday morning this fall, I boarded a train from Boston to New York City. My husband was headed to a work conference in Texas, and I had decided to take a solo adventure while he was away.
When I told people about my plans, their initial response was always the same: “By yourself?”
My mother was doubtful, my sister surprised, my friend Abigail wistful. “You’re so brave,” she said. I’m fairly certain they all expected me to be nervous about spending three days in the city alone. But I could hardly keep the glee out of my voice.
I’m an introvert by nature, a small-town girl by upbringing and heritage. I’m the granddaughter, on both sides, of farmers who raised cattle and alfalfa hay on quiet green acres bordered by forests. I’m a West Texan, and I admit to loving the solitude and freedom of those wide open spaces: long gray ribbons of highway stretching to the horizon, the silhouettes of tall pump jacks and mesquite scrubbing against so much sky.
I’ve come to cherish a different kind of solitude in recent years, though: the experience of being alone in a city.
It started in Oxford, where so many things began for me: my love of strong Yorkshire tea with scones and clotted cream, my ever-expanding collection of scarves, my experience of a wider, more varied world than the mid-size Texas towns I knew. My love of solitude began long before I went to Oxford as a college student, but it was there that I learned how to be alone in a crowd.
In Oxford, as in so many cities I’ve visited since, it is commonplace — even normal — to be alone. Students walk past on the pavement or rush by on bikes, sometimes in flocks heading to the pub for the evening, but often by themselves. Library carrels are dotted with solitary heads bent over laptops or stacks of books. In the city’s many cafés, it’s not unusual to see several parties of one among the pairs of chattering girlfriends or groups of tourists stopping for some refreshment. During my year in Oxford, I relished spending a late-afternoon hour or two at Queen’s Lane Coffee House, preferably at a table by the front window, where I could watch the city bustle outside as I sipped my tea.
There’s a particular quality to being alone in a city: the feeling of being held, supported, by an invisible net, even as you move about independently. An unseen web of other people, other lives, all moving in tandem (or occasionally at cross purposes), like tiny capillaries ferrying blood to a beating heart. I love walking down a city street for this reason: hearing the rhythm of my steps against the sidewalk, feeling the pulse of the metropolis around and through me. I love knowing I’m a part of the constant dance of a collective life bigger than my own.
In New York, perhaps even more than Oxford, solitude is everywhere: on the subway trains, in the parks, in cafes and restaurants and high-rise buildings. I rented a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, and I spent two days in blissful aloneness: going to my favorite café for breakfast, taking a rambling walk through Central Park, wandering the brownstone-lined streets at will, stopping to snap pictures of storefronts and trees.
For two days, I went exactly where I wanted to go, with no one to answer to or feel responsible for. I made small talk with baristas and booksellers, thanked waiters and salespeople for their help, but I always came back, in the end, to myself: an independent being among so many others in this city.
On the third day, I ate lunch with an acquaintance near Union Square, then met a college friend for a long, rambling walk up the High Line and dinner near her apartment on the Upper East Side. I spent hours in conversation, talking and listening and laughing. After that stretch of near-total solitude, it felt good to reconnect, to be in community for a while.
But after dinner, I walked back through Central Park alone, noticing the play of light and shadow on the buildings and sidewalks. I stopped in the middle of Madison Avenue (the light was red) to snap a photo of the empty street. I bought a tiny carton of strawberry ice cream from the corner bodega and ate it alone, in the apartment, soaking in the silence.
Outside, the city continued its never-ending dance. But I was content to sit out for a few hours, relishing the solitude, yet knowing I wasn’t entirely alone.
Katie Noah Gibson is a writer, editor, knitter, and compulsive tea-drinker living in the Boston area. Born in Texas, she’s a lifelong Anglophile but loves to travel just about anywhere. You can find her at her blog, Cakes, Tea and Dreams, reviewing books at Shelf Awareness, or on Twitter at @katiengibson.