Theme I, Wayfinding: On Foot

By Ariana DiValentino

At age 20 and with no legitimate excuse, I do not have a driver’s license.

As far as the DMV is concerned, there isn’t much keeping me from just taking the damn test and getting my license (in my parents’ words). And it’s not as if I never had the use for it. I grew up in Connecticut, where you do certainly need to drive to get anywhere. Not that there are very many places to go in Connecticut, but I was relying on other people for rides right up until I left for college. My friends, too, were slow to start driving, so most of my weekends were spent watching my best friend’s favorite trashy reality TV shows at her house, and I was content with that. I’ve been “learning” to drive since before I turned 16, but over the years, getting behind the wheel has been increasingly more and more nauseating and palm-sweat-inducing. In a town that didn’t invite much exploration, the appeal of driving wasn’t strong enough to compete with the anxiety.

learners permit

Fortunately, as time has progressed, it’s become harder to envision myself living in a place without comprehensive public transport systems and a million destinations within walking distance. One of the selling points for driving is the independence it’s supposed to give you, but I’ve never felt more independent than when I take off for walks by myself. Sometimes I get this flight urge where I need to leave this party/office/my own room immediately and walk alone in the dark and the cold.

My earliest city night walks were during the winter of my freshman year, walking to the West Side from Founders to cover fashion week shows for the WSN. On the way there, during the time before I had a smartphone to help navigate, I had to cautiously follow the directional notes I had scribbled down, but tracing the same steps back was easy enough. My attention was allowed to drift from street names and numbers to instead the gorgeous brownstones and their intricate wrought-iron gates; to the miraculously light snowfall glistening on the ground and reflecting the city lights. In a period of time when it felt like everything was starting to pile up—I hated my major and things were going down from there—I felt an incredible sense of peace that night. It was Valentine’s Day, and when I got home, I ducked out of my friends’ drunken single people festivities and instead opted to spend it alone watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—one of the movies that began to convince me to pursue film.

One of the cultural aspects of New York I appreciate the most is the possibility for urban solitude. Despite being surrounded by 8 million other people, it’s easy to escape friends, parties, crowds, classes, work, and problems by stepping outside into the anonymity of the city streets. Barring the occasional creep with his mind set on harassing strangers, most New Yorkers respect each other’s desire to just be left alone.

Some people self-medicate with booze or drugs or Cheetos or what have you. I’ve found that the best anxiety relief is found by walking up through Flatiron and Madison Square Park, and circling Gramercy Park reduces anger and frustration. On one particularly depressing night, a walk from Carlyle Court to the New York Public Library was an unexpected cure.

Growing up, we know, means gaining independence, but independence means so much more than how you might have defined it when you were 16 years old and straining to maneuver your parents’ car for the first time. Going to school in New York teaches you something that many people don’t learn until much later in their adulthood, if ever, and that’s how to be alone without feeling lonely. And sure, loneliness is inevitable in some quantity, but the opportunity for solitude is a priceless quality of young adulthood like no other time in life. And the ability to find solace in the city is a freedom greater than any set of keys could grant.

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