Get Well

Self and the City: Ballad of Uncertainty

by Jessa Chargois

Self and the City is a column intended to increase visibility and dialogue surrounding mental health, relationships, harmful stereotypes, and the necessity for self-care and vulnerability. Self and the City will be headlined by Jessa Chargois on a bi-weekly basis. Submissions and guest columnists are welcomed to send work to

I believe that we only desire unpredictably when we possess control. In an instant, control vanished. In an instant, unpredictably became the enemy. Despite the unfathomable pain felt collectively, I have to believe that kindness and hope will triumph. When I am unsure of what else to believe, I have to believe that this is not the new normal. 

Despite this hope, my one-way $19.00 train ticket felt like a deal with the devil. 

Four weeks ago, I was forced to recognize my privilege as I hustled through Grand Central, able to retreat to my childhood home in Upstate New York away from the epicenter of uncertainty. Healthy and able, my parents scooped me and my belongings from the train station, preparing to quarantine as a family. This decision was made prior to the realization that New Yorkers should remain in the epicenter to avoid spreading the invisible enemy, a decision I now wrestle with. Writing this piece from my childhood bedroom, as upstate sunshine bathes my face in assured protection, I cannot help but feel like a traitor. In a time where New Yorkers hunker down and applaud our frontline workers, I am nestled in the rolling hills of the Catskills, doing my part by staying in. 

I ravenously consume content created from the epicenter, pictures of empty avenues, forlorn storefronts, masked survivors bracing against the unknown and uncertain in an effort to feel close to the city that defines so much of me. Staying home is a privilege. Working from home is a privilege. Having a platform to share your voice is a privilege. I feel guilty for possessing all of this in a time where we all have lost so much control. Rather than fight this, I’ve tried to settle into my remorse, aiming to dismantle and understand the source of this symbolic pain.

When I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of upstate, the silence feels foreign. I long for the white noise of car horns, music, shouts, and laughter, colliding together to create the ballad of the downtown streets. I long for my morning sprints to catch the 8:37 a.m. “M” train. If I concentrate hard enough, I can hear the deep booming tenor of the conductor’s announcement that Broadway-Layefette would be our next stop. I can envision the mysterious stranger who boards the same train daily, always standing adjacent to me in our shared car. His pale blue eyes share a look of recognition with my green, never introducing one another, simply sharing the car uptown until we part ways, looking for one another tomorrow. I can almost smell the bitter aroma of the lone coffee cart on the corner of Lexington in Midtown, the scent lingering with me until I step foot in my office lobby. A gentle wave to the security guards and I slip behind the elevator. 

Is the train conductor safe? Is my stranger with the pale blue eyes healthy? Will New York smell of burnt coffee cart? Will the same security guards greet my wave with a smile of recognition when this cloud of uncertainty lifts? Will this routine ever be the same?

I feel guilty and silly for missing that consistency. Once removed, it has become clear to me how much of my identity was built on and around my residency in New York. Growing up, I dreamed of escaping my hometown, trading the Catskill mountains for Midtown skyscrapers. I envisioned my strong legs crossing across marble-floored offices, the clacking of stilettos echoing down hallways lined with this season’s newest designer samples. I craved the fast-paced city lifestyle, filled with glamorous parties, strangers transforming into newfound friends, and creative daydreams turning into a reality. I feel so guilty for feeling so misplaced in my childhood bedroom. I have been temporarily furloughed. I have become distracted and unable to complete a creative endeavor. While my parents are incredible, understanding, and supportive, I feel trapped behind the walls that shaped me, the very walls that are keeping me safe. So much of what defines New York’s vibrancy and wonder defines me as a young woman. Stripped of my job, my routine, my nest, my habitual areas of safety, I am left to ask myself, what defines me? 

Is it possible many of us are feeling a similar cloud of confusion and guilt? Is it possible that together, we hold a collective sense of shame for not enduring the crisis as one city? I have to believe this is not the new normal. I have to believe we will recover. I have to believe that although my beloved city house plants may wither, the vibrance that defines New York will never fade. I have to believe in my brothers and sisters, my neighbors, the strangers, the frontline workers, the first responders, the brave and the frightened. I have to believe this will let us redefine our relationships with humanity, rediscovering selflessness. I have to believe that by letting go of the desire to control, we can once again embrace positive unpredictability. 

I may never find peace with my innate privilege and the decision to retreat upstate during this global uncertainty. I may never shed the remorse I feel towards watching our beloved city endure such pain from a distance. But I can say undoubtedly, I look forward to purchasing yet another one-way $19.00 train ticket, sound-bound, homeward bound. 

I look forward to the first of many future mornings boarding the 8:37 a.m. “M” train. I look forward to the smile that will crawl across my face when the tenor of the conductor greets us back onto the subways, a subway will a familiar stranger on board. His pale blue eyes will meet mine and we will smile knowing we now share two things in common; the 8:37 a.m. rush and resilience. I will finally stop and buy myself three cups of the presumably burnt coffee and the Lexington cart. I’ll bring two cups to the friendly security guards, introducing myself by name. I’ll take my coffee upstairs, sliding behind the elevator in my stilettos, echoing on the marble as I fall back into a routine that I refuse to take for granted. 

For now, I will help my parents and our town deliver lunches to those in need. I will stay at home because I have the ability to do so. I will sew masks fit for daily use. I will try to spread joy and hope through my platforms. I will write for those who do not have the voice I am honored to have. I will check in on my friends and family. I will stay informed. I will take care of myself to the best of my ability so I can be strong for those who cannot. I will count on the future and count down the days until I can hug my beloved roommate, my chaotically charming coworkers, and my cherished dear friends. I count on the future filled with the ballad of the downtown streets, a white noise unique to the epicenter of uncertainty, an unpredictability we will soon reclaim as our own.

Feature Image via Jessica Golightly

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