An Ode to Alone Time

As an introvert, when I moved to New York City, I had the numbers stacked against me — 8,550,404:1. Would I ever be able to find alone time?

Back in Missouri, when I needed to recharge, I’d lounge under a shady tree, soothed by the hum of neighborhood lawn mowers and the creaks of my porch swing in the breeze. Or if I had an important decision to make, I would hop in my car and coast along empty country roads until I had clarity. It felt a little like I was setting myself up when I packed my bags for the place of fast-walking, fast-talking people, bustling through crowded streets and overflowing subways.

The term “introvert” describes those who lose energy from interacting with others, even if they enjoy the company. I feel my best and most energetic when I have time alone to reflect on my surroundings, ideas and memories. Since I now live in a small apartment with two roommates, I’ve realized I need to find my solo time outside. A month after my move, New York Magazine published a guide for this exact situation, stating: “Being alone when surrounded by so many others holds a different appeal from being alone in a cabin in the woods. It’s less about being a hermit and more about being a chameleon.” With this as my handbook and 11 months of practice, I have finally discovered what works.

Walking in Manhattan
There are two ways to walk in New York. You can navigate the city with earphones and your eyes averted, traveling from point A to point B with the least amount of interruption. But there is a more romantic course — where having no destination is key. If I have a free Sunday afternoon, I’ll take the subway to the historic neighborhoods I grew up reading about. Lately, it’s been the West Village, where the ivy clings to hundred-year-old brownstones and the cobblestone streets curve like European alleyways. I’m free to observe and roam these neighborhoods exactly how I please. I can welcome city life — and grab a coffee from a corner bakery — or retreat to a quiet garden.

Going to the movies
When you go to a movie alone, you can choose whichever one you like, sit wherever your heart desires and have the liberating option to walk out halfway through. (The last film I saw was Maggie’s Plan.) There is also something especially magical about seeing a movie in a buzzing, independent New York theater. A deliriously eager and chatty crowd transforms into a group of attentive individuals the second the previews begin. For as long as the projector flickers, everyone is solo, relishing their heightened emotions.

Sitting in the park
People watching has always been a favorite activity for me. But in New York it’s especially delicious. Every time I sit at the fountain in Washington Square Park or secure a bench on the Brooklyn Promenade to read, I end up invested in the sagas unfolding around me instead. I’ll find myself on the same page for ten minutes, unable to shift my attention back. Wait! What was Uncle Ron doing on the roof in the first place? I try to telepathically ask the two middle-aged women chatting behind me. These acts of friendly eavesdropping beat Netflix any day.

Playing tourist
This is the trickiest of my routines. If you want to avoid the stop-and-go tourist parades that usually surround these places, time it right. The Brooklyn Bridge is stunning after dark. The distant lights of Manhattan flicker like fireflies, and the river breeze flows over the boardwalk. Then there’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a peaceful, slow rhythm in the mornings, and I’ve been able to gaze at Helen Levitt photographs and Balthus paintings without distraction. New York Magazine also notes, “A lot of people don’t know this, but the Empire State Building is open until 2 a.m. The last elevator leaves at 1:15. If you go up then, it’s empty, it’s beautiful, and the city sounds like the ocean.” Seeing these grand places, without the Disneyland hubbub, reminds you of the wild promise of New York, why you fell in love with it in the first place.

Chatting with strangers
My solitary habits have actually led to a number of conversations with strangers. The last time I was at the movie theater, I sat next to another solo-goer. After she tapped her box Junior Mints on my armchair, we started talking. We laughed about how we were both there because of our crush on Ethan Hawke. This spring, while walking in Brooklyn Heights with my camera hanging around my neck, a old man wobbled over with a walking stick. He pointed his cane toward a brick street by the water — his favorite place in Brooklyn to photograph. Once, on a delayed C train, the girl next to me nudged my shoulder and pointed to our feet with a smirk. We were wearing the same Everlane loafers. Through the next nine stops, we discussed everything from the final episode of The Sopranos to the best way to reheat pizza (a skillet, we agreed). It was a glorious 10-minute friendship.

At the end of the day, I love nothing more than laughing with old friends, or crashing a party of my mom’s with her five sisters. But, it’s nice to know, whenever they are busy, I can always hang out with myself.

P.S. Drinking alone and traveling alone.

(Photo by Stella Blackmon.)