The Inescapable Thoughts of an Urban Dweller

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I stepped outside my place yesterday in need of some inspiration, something to break up the drudgery of thoughts which collect in the time it takes for me to get dressed, stand in the elevator, pick what song I want to listen to on my mp3, etc. Because I happen to live in New York City, walking anywhere provides this opportunity so long as my eyes are not bandaged shut, and on that particular day, it was waiting for me right outside my door in the form of a middle aged, short, Hispanic woman wearing a sweat suit and light pink tank top, riffling through a tall pile of garbage, pulling out recyclable cans with a 5-year-old child in a khaki getup asking a hundred questions per minute nearby and sort of playing in the garbage too. Initially, this was indeed a sad sight to see. I wondered, how the duo got to that point, did the daughter know her mother was doing something peculiar, did they do this all day long, etc.

But then I walked past the pair and saw four huge garbage bags lined up against the wall filled with hundreds of recyclable bottles per bag. The woman was also working on filling up a fifth bag as I passed by. At first glance, I would estimate the total bottles  in each bag to be about 300, the return coming out to close to $75 bucks at the recycling center. Plus, it was early enough in the day that she could probably fill up several more. My initial sense of pity was replaced by an impression of respect. This woman took whatever it is was that was her “situation” (often a large byproduct of luck) and created a monstrously efficient system for making money from recycling. The picture I took with my iPhone camera could make it on one of those Motivational Dedication posters. Look closely and you can see that the little girl’s pink stroller is lined up beside the grand collection.

I do not think that such a sight should necessarily alleviate any personal sense of pain on account of the fact that others have it worse. Screw that. Just because my plate is full does not mean I want to eat what’s on it, and just because I cast a vote does not mean it makes a difference. At the end of the day, you can’t really live your life in comparison to others and most actions really only make an impact in the aggregate. What I do take from this is an appreciation for the art of being human. One might at first glance perceive her feat to be herculean, but in reality what this woman is doing is the opposite of superhuman—it is precisely human. She is providing for her child, and for herself, in a way that is optimal taking into account her moral and physical restraints, as well as her aversion to risk. What I mean to say is that if she were not fearful of the consequences, she might be doing something illicit to survive, if she were a man perhaps there would be no pink stroller to drag about, and if she wasn’t motivated to provide for her child, she might instead chose to lie face-flat and be depressed all day long. But instead she was grinding away at her enterprise that, at an ROI of close to $100, could cover at least her most fundamental needs.

In New York such images abound. I walk the streets and think about how we are a resourceful species with an incredible ability to adapt. Simply on the merit of our homosapien status, we should be able to pull through the endless sea of crap, rejection, and competition. Taking into account the coordinates of an individual’s principles, motivations, restraints, and levels of will, is how we are plotted on the chart of survival. I wonder where I stand, or what awful situation will make me find it out.

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About the author

Rebecca E. - The Centimentalist

What does Rebecca bring to the table? Fanciful eye twinkles and a plastic tablecloth, that’s what. Her parents are Russian, but she was born in Massachusetts and thus maintains her innocence, though she admittedly prefers blintzes and beet salad to hamburgers. When she spent a year in Japan as a kid she experienced the first of many dips on her normalcy development chart. She came back to the States like the little wheelbarrow on the NYC Edition of Monopoly. Next, she moved to Atlanta where she hung with Jermaine Dupree in elevators. She got a B.A. outside Chicago, and after a two-year stint as a consultant, warmed up in Miami, picking up a water-resistant J.D. Now she is back in Manhattan, trying to collect evidence and moneybags all over the board, henceforth as the cannon piece.