Thoughts on mortality and New York City
New York City kills.
People are dying everyday and everywhere and every minute, but when you live within a city as concentrated and dense as New York City — where people live in concrete shoeboxes, literally smushed and stacked on top of one another — death is not a phenomenon. It is a reality. Sure, the rich housed within their grand brownstones and the gentrifiers shielded in refurbished apartments can turn a blind eye, but the inevitable and cyclical nature of death is omnipresent.
I was gravely aware of this when I first considered moving to New York. I had spent a chillingly lonely February night binging “Russian Doll,” a Netflix show set in the Big Apple, in which the Groundhog Day-esque plot subjects Natasha Lyonne’s character to gruesome urban-inflicted deaths day in and day out: She is struck by a taxi cab after recklessly crossing into a busy intersection; she falls headfirst into an open cellar hatch; she drowns after inexplicably losing her balance atop a pier; she trips to her death down her walk-up’s stairs during her birthday party.
I visited New York shortly thereafter in March, queueing the show’s eery earworm, “Gotta Get Up” by Harry Nilsson, to my sauntering steps. As I headed through Midtown towards the East Village, I keenly acknowledged the clanging metal hatches that could surely send me to an all-too-early, spiraling death drop.
Ruminating about mortality in your early 20s is, for most non-mortally ill people, a fruitless activity that claims precious brain space from other, more appropriate 21-year-old thoughts (like romance). Maybe it’s a generational tick, having grown up surrounded by second-hand trauma and anxiety from grim events like 9/11 and school shootings and the ever-pervasive, unsolvable threat of climate change.
But I’ve always approached the concept of death — a simultaneously mysterious and commonplace state of being — with less gravitas than I should. I don’t crave death; I want to accept it. Acceptance comes easier and more naturally when death becomes a frequent afterthought — at least according to a Bhutanese folk saying, the premise of an app that arbitrarily reminds me of life’s demise five times a day.
I downloaded the app WeCroak in April after two tech reporters on my Twitter timeline endorsed it. It serves an undoubtedly morbid function, selecting purely random moments of the day to send a push alert: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die. Open for a quote…”
It seemed as if death was always in my periphery. Since my freshman year of high school, unexpected tragedies, announced through sorrowful GoFundMe pages, struck every year without fail at the heart of my close-knit hometown, where someone knew someone directly affected by a recent loss. The names and the years have blurred over time; I had stored each incident away in my mind and refused to acknowledge them until May, when I was again reminded of my own mortality.
I visited Manhattan at the end of spring, strolling the streets of Nolita high — off the news of a full-time media job offer and a sloppily rolled CBD joint. I lit up with my friend Seb in Thomas Paine Park, where a woman unleashed a string of unsavory curses in our direction. (We silently blew smoke from our wooden bench and left, as you should in these situations.) Seb trudged along with his bike steadied in one hand, as I pointed out how bikers have gotten killed in Brooklyn at record numbers (although not yet a Brooklyn resident, I frequently read the Eagle) and how he should be careful of New York City's very reckless drivers, who unblinkingly mowed down people in their paths.
I said it matter-of-factly, not expecting that a few minutes later, a person would be mowed down in my line of vision.