In the rest of America, people crave human contact. Buying a quart of milk may be one’s only conversation for the day, and clerk and customer stretch out the transaction with pleasant chat. In Manhattan, by contrast, the relentless crush of humanity makes solitude into something not to be rejected but to be embraced, even defended. When out-of-towners see us pass each other by with barely a grunt, they mistake our lack of small talk for coldness. Really, we’re exchanging a small, invisible gift: a moment’s silence.
Strangely, solitude can be nicest in public. Walking down a sparsely populated New York street is downright therapeutic, especially upon release from a bleeping office or a packed subway car. The solo walk clears your head, lets you pace off the day’s frustrations, turns you back into the person you wish to be. (Sometimes an iPod helps, but private silence, over a nice bass line of traffic, can be the best part.)
Gert Berliner is 82. He shot these photographs, and dozens like them, in midtown in the sixties, and most likely none of his subjects ever knew they’d been snapped. Because they are so unposed, we can read into them what we wish. Is the guy scowling over his shoulder at a cabbie, startled by a dog, checking out a girl? Is that woman’s downcast gaze a hangdog look, or did she merely nod as the shutter clicked? What unifies them is that everyone is alone, enjoying, as they please, their gift.