Being Single and Lonely in New York

An Englishwoman in New York tries to tackle loneliness head on.

| May/June 2013

  • Single And Lonely
    Something funny happens to people who are lonely. The lonelier they get, the less adept they become at navigating social currents.
    Photo By Mo Riza

  • Single And Lonely

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.

10/21/2013 2:50:30 AM

I wonder how many men she snubbed through her journey through loneliness. How many other women who were charmed by her accent? How many fellow Brits that heard her speak into her phone on the subway that tried to catch her attention did she ignore? "There is no reason for a woman to be lonely," a large female friend of mine once told me. "Every woman I know has always had a man a phone call away probably missing her no matter how she looked." I have tried some networking websites and I have read articles about them. They have lost favor with many women because their biggest complaint is they get fifty messages at once from men. Fifty messages being sent out by lonely men that will never be returned by the women that control them and have them wrapped around their fingers.

10/16/2013 9:33:05 PM

This is practically ripped from the pages of Canadian author Emily White's striking work, "Lonely: A Memoir"

JWT Meakin
4/27/2013 2:41:50 AM

How does this analysis apply to those of us who are solitary but no lonely? Walden Pond, anyone?

Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Summer 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $40.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $45 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!

Facebook Instagram Twitter

click me