Friday, March 26, 1999

New York City Stress

After an absence of many years, I find myself in the city, drawn to it like a moth to the light. This very moment way past midnight I am typing on my personal computer, writing this deadline blog post in a cramped Manhattan cubbyhole apartment. Suddenly as the stillness of the city night is broken by the daunting din of garbage and recycling trucks begins, my doubts begin to set in. Whatever am I doing in this overwhelming city? Whatever made me think I can write. What if I draw a complete blank? What if? What if?  Stress. Stress. I am beginning to feel stressed. After all, in this city of soaring Icaruses, many, as in that mythological story, get too close to the flames of the sun and are felled.

In fact, a recent study by University of California at San Diego researchers indicates that those who live in New York City are the most likely to be felled, not because their wax wings melt, but by heart attacks. First on the list of possible causes is stress. The rate here is 55% higher than the national average, while other larger cities, such as Philadelphia, simply reflect the national norm. Even people who merely visit the city are affected by this phenomenon. Interestingly, those who leave find their risk significantly lowered. Indeed, my heart is pounding as I read this. I begin to wonder if I am destined to have a heart attack. Never mind that my cholesterol levels are lowest on the risk chart.

I call up Dr. Spencer Eth, vice-chairman of psychiatry at St. Vincent’s Hospital and professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College, and ask him about this phenomenon. One of the things he points to is what he calls the “drift” factor: New York, he says, tends to attract ambitious, competitive, professional, type-A achievers -- who tend to be at greater risk than those mellow types who live in San Diego.

I begin to berate myself for the sacrifices exacted by my labors. The meticulous work; the isolation, the uncertainty.  Indeed, I spend most of my time writing, often with relentless deadlines, giving myself little time to relax. Like many in this indefatigable city, I find myself often late, late for an interview and deciding to take a cab, only to find it stuck in traffic with the meter still ticking and the tab rising, late e-mailing my completed work because of a computer glitch. I hop on the bus just in time for a grant meeting, only to find myself holding an expired MetroCard. All the while I am thinking of that literary gathering later that evening where everyone (but me) will be wearing the most chic and sleek form of black. Or should it be gray?

Stress. Stress. How to deal with stress? I walk over to the crowded Barnes and Noble and begin to consult the self-help books. Exercise. Relax. Eat right. Indeed, in my neighborhood, there is a gym on every block, a health food store on every corner, a yoga class in my very building.

Cope. Cope. How, indeed, how does one cope here? Perhaps I should consult about this matter with one of New York’s numerous therapists, who have their shingles up, it seems, on every block, -- serving, I suspect, in this city of so many isolated people to merely provide a human presence.

I ponder the costs of living here: the small spaces, the crowds, the feeling I have that the city is closing in on me. The annoying particles of soot that settle on my windowsill. The lumbering buses. The dirty subways. The daily scenes of desperation. “Leave the city before it makes you hard,” I heard someone say in a graduation speech, and indeed when I see a jogger collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the Gap store next door and the crowds walking relentlessly by, I do want to flee.

Then I think of the poet W.H. Auden who described his move to New York as the most decisive experience of his life. “New York,” he said, is the only city in which I can live and work quietly.”

On the other hand there’s W.C. Fields’s epitaph, “On the whole, I’d much rather be in Philadelphia.”