The bluest period I ever spent was in Manhattan’s East Village, not so long back. I lived on East 2nd Street, in an unreconstructed tenement building, and each morning I walked across Tompkins Square Park to get my coffee. When I arrived the trees were bare, and I dedicated those walks to checking the progress of the blossoms. There are many community gardens in that part of town, and so I could examine irises and tulips, forsythia, cherry trees, and a great weeping willow that seemed to drop its streamers overnight, like a ship about to lift anchor and sail away.
I wasn’t supposed to be in New York, or not like this, anyway. I’d met someone in America and then lost them almost instantly, but the future we’d dreamed up together retained its magnetism, and so I moved alone to the city I’d expected to become my home. I had friends there, but none of the ordinary duties and habits that comprise a life. I’d severed all those small, sustaining cords, and, as such, it wasn’t surprising that I experienced a loneliness more paralyzing than anything I’d encountered in more than a decade of living alone.
What did it feel like? It felt like being hungry, I suppose, in a place where being hungry is shameful, and where one has no money and everyone else is full. It felt, at least sometimes, difficult and embarrassing and important to conceal. Being foreign didn’t help. I kept botching the ballgame of language: fumbling my catches, bungling my throws. Most days, I went for coffee in the same place, a glass-fronted café full of tiny tables, populated almost exclusively by people gazing into the glowing clamshells of their laptops. Each time, the same thing happened. I ordered the nearest thing to filter on the menu: a medium urn brew, which was written in large chalk letters on the board. Each time, without fail, the barista looked blankly up and asked me to repeat myself. I might have found it funny in England, or irritating, or I might not have noticed it all, but that spring it worked under my skin, depositing little grains of anxiety and shame.
Something funny happens to people who are lonely. The lonelier they get, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mold or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it isn’t easy to dislodge. When I think of its advance, an anchoress’s cell comes to mind, as does the exoskeleton of a gastropod.
This sounds like paranoia, but in fact loneliness’s odd mode of increase has been mapped by medical researchers. It seems that the initial sensation triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, one tends to experience the world in negative terms, and to both expect and remember negative encounters—instances of rudeness, rejection or abrasion, like my urn brew episodes in the café. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.
At the same time, the brain’s state of red alert brings about a series of physiological changes. Lonely people are restless sleepers. Loneliness drives up blood pressure, accelerates aging, and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline. According to a 2010 study I came across in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine titled “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms,” loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality, which is an elegant way of saying that loneliness can prove fatal.
I don’t think I experienced cognitive decline, but I quickly became intimate with hypervigilance. During the months I lived in Manhattan, it manifested as an almost painful alertness to the city, a form of over-arousal that oscillated between paranoia and desire. During the day, I rarely encountered anyone in my building, but at night I’d hear doors opening and closing, and people passing a few feet from my bed. The man next door was a DJ, and at odd hours the apartment would be flooded with his music. At two or three in the morning, the heat rose clanking through the pipes, and just before dawn I’d sometimes be woken by the siren of the ladder truck leaving the East 2nd Street fire station, which had lost six crew members on 9/11.
On those broken nights, the city seemed a place of seepage, both ghosted and full of gaps. Lying awake in my platform bed, the bass from next door pummeling my chest, I’d think of how the neighborhood used to be, the stories that I’d heard. In the 1980s, this section of the East Village—which is known as Alphabet City because of its four vertical avenues, A to D—was dominated by heroin. People sold it in stairways, or through holes in doors, and sometimes the queues would run right down the street. Many of the buildings were derelict then, and some were turned into impromptu shooting galleries, while others were occupied by the artists who were just beginning to colonize the area.
The one I felt most affinity for was David Wojnarowicz, skinny and lantern-jawed in a leather jacket. He’d been a street kid and a hustler before he became an artist, and grew famous alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. He died in 1992, a couple of months short of his 38th birthday, of AIDS-related complications. Just before his death, he put together a book called Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, a ranging, raging collection of essays about sex and cruising, loneliness, sickness, and the wicked politicians who refused to take seriously the crisis of AIDS.
I loved that book, especially the passages about the Hudson river piers. As shipping declined in the 1960s, the piers that ran along the Hudson, from Christopher Street to 14th Street, were abandoned and fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, New York was nearly bankrupt, and so these immense decaying buildings could neither be destroyed nor properly secured. Some were squatted by homeless people, who built camps inside the old goods sheds and baggage halls, and others were adopted by gay men as cruising grounds.
To read more from Olivia Laing read the rest of Being Single and Lonely in New York.
Olivia Laing is a writer with an interest in books, art, and landscape. She is the author of To the River (2012). Her new book is called The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink. Reprinted from Aeon, a digital magazine of ideas and culture based in the United Kingdom, publishing an original essay every weekday.