The Incident: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being an NYC Nobody

By Will Thames


In the grand tradition of millennials shrugging off their small-town lives in favor of a bigger, greater, urban existence; I am thrilled to announce that I am a THRIVING New York City resident. Within six months, New York City has already presented me with more opportunities to grow than I ever thought possible. I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Tires on fire off the shoulder of West 67th street and Broadway. I’ve watched Drag Queens glitter in the dark near the dumpsters behind an Arby’s on East 34th.

I have seen rats of various shapes and sizes- none of them hauling whole slices of pizza as the internet had promised me. I feel slightly cheated in this respect. I’ve witnessed rats hauling other rats, plastic bags, and a matted floor-length wig which I suspect started its’ life in the developmental lab of The Cher Show. Stephanie J Block, wherever you are, your hair-hat is in good paws. Still- no rats carrying pizza. The internet proves itself a lying temptress once again.

My assimilation into city-dwelling has proceeded with the ease of childbirth after three or four kids. Learning the subway ropes was surprisingly drama-free. It’s the 21st century and GPS technology leaves little to be desired. This has proven useful in both commuting to the hinterlands (a word meaning “Brooklyn”), and soliciting anonymous sex under New York City’s many historic bridges.

That’s another thing- I live within spitting distance of the George Washington Bridge! I used to turn my nose up at people who form romantic/sexual attachments to national monuments (YouTube “woman marries Eiffel Tower” if you want to fall down a rabbit hole of confusion and intrigue). But after catching myself murmuring “Who’s a sexy bridge? Who’s a sexy sexy bridge?” While gazing over the George Washington’s sensuous support columns and downright sinful suspension cables, I am forced to acknowledge that these monument-philiacs may be onto something.

All this to say: I’m doing ok MOM. GOD.

But life is far from perfect, despite the vast sums of slam poetry I nod along to, and stand-up comics I dissect mercilessly with my funniest of funny friends.

“It was good,” I sneer. “But would it give Lorne Michaels the stiffy he deserves and clearly needs?”

Making new friends in young-adulthood is challenging. Especially when you’ve been coasting on passable knowledge of musical theatre for most of your adolescence. Oh, you know every word of La Vie Boheme? Get in line, chicken shit. Everybody knows every word of La Vie Boheme. This is New York City, bitch. Culture culture bagels CULTURE. My old party tricks not carrying me far, I’ve had to fall back on good old fashioned gentility.  

Most of my attempts to break the ice have been on public transportation. Most have fallen woefully flat. My initial attempts consisted mainly of thrusting a thumbs-up into the faces of people whose haircuts I found particularly interesting. Not stylish or sleek. Interesting. This practice was not met with the unanimous appreciation I’d anticipated. When presented with a human Twizzler proclaiming “Love the bangs! So confusing!” through a nervous grin, most people’s minds flash to “mentally ill” or worse, “Midwestern.” Both are fair evaluations.

The pitying stares rob all the fun of my daily commute to Party City, where I perform improvised rhythmic gymnastics using two paper streamers as ribbons in hopes of being discovered by a Broadway. I could be wrong, but I believe this is what the common New Yorker refers to as “hustle.” On the train to and from Party City, I’ve resigned myself to saying nothing and taking diligent notes on the various updos I spot.

My notes on the subject reads as follows:

11/1 - Red-tipped side-sweep. Very flirty @ thirty.

11/5 - Electric blue shoulder length. Equally alluring and whimsical. Like Elmo in stilettos.

12/13 - Bald w neck tattoo that becomes a snakeskin encasing entire scalp. Point out that your scalp is tattoo-free the next time Utilities Company calls about missing payments.

01/05 - DADDY

Appreciation is half the journey to intimacy, and I’m confident that this new practice will boost my confidence with strangers... any… minute… now…

At times, being in your prime in the greatest city on earth is downright exhausting. Between choosing which episode of Shark Tank to watch next and debating which scabies-ridden armchair to drag in off the curb, I hardly have time for liquids anymore. The dehydration is agony but my cheekbones have never been more defined.

If I’m a rough-edged stone, New York City is a class VI rapid pummeling my sharp points to dust. Also, the water is Code Red Mountain Dew and unemployed actor tears. Salty but refreshing.

In no other place is this healthy corrosion of the spirit felt more keenly than on the subway. My ability to internally chant “THIS IS FINE WE ARE FINE ALL THIS IS FINE” has been tested daily by the MTA. Personal space is the real battleground. When a train is lightly populated, peace and tranquility reign. As we hurtle through darkness, the sound of metal screeching against metal acquires an almost musical lilt. Oblivion underscored with ukulele. When the train is packed, usually during morning and evening rush hour (a phrase describing the time of day more people take the train to attend something called “work”), one’s outlook shifts dramatically. Everyone is a potential viral outbreak. Your neighbors become cold husks in the way. Open seats are jostled over with the ferocity of a Supreme Court Justice shotgunning Pabst Blue Ribbon.

On the subject of the death of human decency, we must come to a regretful point of our story. Roughly three weeks ago, I committed a terrible crime ACCIDENTALLY. An ACCIDENTAL crime against goodness, order, decency, and personal space. An act which has been emblazoned in my mind as, simply, “The Incident.”

On the day of The Incident I was standing in the middle of an overcrowded train. My right hand clasped firmly around a silver support pole. The inclusion of these poles in subway cars feels a strange and petty move on the part of the MTA. As if to say “Wouldn’t you rather be somewhere equally dirty but full of bedazzled areolas and fun?”

Yes, MTA, I would rather be somewhere like that.

My memory of The Incident comes in blurred fragments. Repression isn’t just for forgetting your Jazz Dance professor asking you to strip half-naked in her office to examine your poor posture through the misalignment of your nipples. It’s also for blocking out that one time you unwittingly committed an ACCIDENTAL atrocity.

I know I had one hand on the pole and was likely pondering the inertia required to propel oneself up said pole soaked in coconut oil and wearing red-bottoms. What I was *not* thinking of, was the woman standing in the crook of my arm, squeezed in between me and another man wearing an oversized backpack.

My unknowing victim appeared to be in her late 20s or early 30s. Her hair looked expensive and her jacket was the color of pink champagne. She carried herself with effortless confidence that seemed to say “I pay my taxes on time AND have time for Soulcycle.”

A note about me before we dissect my wrong-doings. I am convinced that I am growing steadily more clumsy as I age. When I think back to middle school or high school, no memories jump out in which I am dropping multiple dishes on the kitchen floor, or tripping on a leaf pile. Both examples are based in fact and I would just like to point out how brave I am for sharing. You’re welcome, Internet.

With this in mind, I find it comforting to think about The Incident as an inevitability.  The inexorable conclusion of two bodies meeting; one ill-proportioned and prone to uncontrollable flailing, the other just trying to check its phone in peace.

The Incident transpired thusly:

She boards the train, scans for an empty seat, settles for standing dangerously close to me.

The doors slide shut. “Next stop- 145th Street.”

We depart.

My nose begins to itch.

I move to scratch the itch, misjudge the distance, and, with a single, decisive stroke... slap her across the face. ACCIDENTALLY.  

Her head is thrown to the side, her eyes blink wildly, she stares back at me, gauging the potential threat.

She sees is a very gangly boy turning very scarlet, eyes wide with horror.

“S-sorry…” I murmur, desperate not to be overheard. “Such a- a klutz.”

We behold each other for a moment that feels like an eternity.

Then, miraculously, she offers a baleful nod and smiles with a slight… understanding?

The moment passes and we are two strangers on a train again.

I pray to every deity I can think of that no one noticed.

I itch my nose.

My friend, who was riding with me that day, bore witness to the atrocity. Him and a few others, I’m sure.

“You looked like a whipped dog,” he says.

“I believe you,” I reply.

The woman and I may have met each other as total strangers, but we parted ways as something more. Total strangers bonded by a dark and terrible secret.

Wherever she is now, I hope she’s found peace. I hope our interaction gave her something to complain about with her friends over cosmos or infant blood or whatever the hell fancy people drink. I like to imagine her in a well-lit, recently-cleaned, bar on the top floor of an upper-east-side hotel. Recounting the ordeal, her hand flies briefly to her face.

“…so then this human Pringles can just fucking DECKS ME.”

“Oh mah GOOOOOD,” a friend might say.

“This fucking CIIIIIITY,” she might reply.

And then they all laugh. Drinks in hand, open-mouthed. This is a comforting thought. More comforting than the thought that I was the proverbial straw that broke her camel’s back. I sincerely hope I didn’t crop up in her next therapy session, serving as the perfect human metaphor for everything wrong and chaotic in the world. Or, if she is now living in rural Pennsylvania as a moderately-successful dental hygienist, I hope she thinks of me and smiles softly to herself. Thank god I moved away from that hell-hole, she might think to herself. No one sideswipes you in rural Pennsylvania.

All this to say- I am clearly a well-adjusted, well-meaning, somewhat clumsy addition to this city. There’s really no way to adjust to new surroundings. And if you, dear reader, are questioning your sense of belonging, or feeling you’d be better off practicing dentistry somewhere green and spacious, wait for someone to cuff you on the train.

Until that day, stick it out. Get out of bed, do your work, keep trying, and don’t take your depth-perception for granted.