Every few weeks I’ll have plans with a friend who I see rather often. Let’s call her Vera. Vera is a gal about town, a writer, but when she hits the wall, the bricks come tumbling down fast on her. “All I want to do is sleep,” she’ll say to me on a Friday night when the work week got the best of her. “On Saturday I need to be alone and decompress, but we can meet up at night to go to a party.”
It’s a refrain I hear from a lot of people. Everyone is so tired. Just yesterday I ran on five hours of sleep for almost 17 hours, meeting with people, answering e-mails and teaching a class. On my way home at 11:00 p.m., I stopped at the grocery store. Exhausted, I bought a curious mix of a tuna sandwich, a package of Milano cookies, sugar-free ice cream sandwiches and the new issue of Vogue. This morning I looked at these items in awe. Clearly sleep deprivation got the best of me. I was so tired, I forgot the wine coolers.
It’s often said that New York is the City That Never Sleeps. I believe this is true. No matter what I’ve been up to at whatever hour, I’ve always been able to find a cab and a bottle of water for the ride home. That is, except if I’m in Chinatown. Chinatown shuts down at 10:00 p.m. because all the businesses are family owned. Good luck trying to find an open bodega in the wee hours.
Why are all my friends, and so many other New Yorkers, so tired? There’s a Starbucks on almost every corner, so it’s not like we can’t find caffeine. I hear cocaine is back in style, so in extreme cases I suppose you could get your hands on some of that. Gadgets and technology are supposed to make business easier and quicker. Imagine how groggy we would be if we had to feed paper and ribbon into a typewriter. Delivery boys will bring us any meal that we need to eat. Paychecks are directly deposited and bills are paid online. Yet sometimes I can’t squeeze out six hours of sleep because…?
The exhaustion is not a physical one, it’s a mental one. No one comes to New York for a mellow lifestyle. They want the energy and the excitement, the buzz that hits you when you walk out of Grand Central station. If we wanted good sleep we would live out in the suburbs, where air is fresher and the only noise you hear are barking golden retrievers. In New York, you tire yourself out trying to be as productive as possible. This is the town to make money, not to be happy with your teacher’s salary and guaranteed pension. At the end of the work day, which has left you bleary-eyed because you really hadn’t gotten enough sleep to function in the first place, there are social engagements, alcohol to consume, internet dates and, if you’re lucky, the gym to attend. Eventually you’ll pass out from one thing or another and the cycle continues.
Every year or so one of the local magazines like New York or Time Out New York will put out a special issue about how to chill out in Manhattan. This is nothing but an exercise in futility. No matter how many $200 massages you get or how much yoga you take, the stress will eventually creep back and get you. After all, have you tried to get an appointment for a fancy massage? It’s not exactly a walk-in procedure. More often than not, you have to set an appointment. You have to wait. How does that help you when you’re so tired and crazy you’re starting conversations with homeless people on the A train?
There’s only one solution to the exhaustion and sleep deprivation problem: defect. Yes, defect. To the country, to the beach, somewhere where you can’t buy a copy of Grindhouse for five dollars off of a blanket on the street. You don’t have to go permanently, or even for a long time, just a day or so. Get away from the noise and the must-see exhibits at whatever fancy gallery. Run from the hipsters and their American Apparel uniforms. Flee from the Park Slope mommies and their carriages that carry twins and triplets. Find a hotel with a good mattress and a Jacuzzi by the pool. Reconnect with a friend who has a house with a spare bedroom. (And again, with a good mattress.) In two days those dark circles under your eyes will be a bad memory, like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates in Central Park.
If you didn’t live in New York, where else would you live? I always say that Los Angeles is the only other civilized alternative, but from what I hear they get up really early over there and eat a lot of Thai food. Could all that peanut sauce be good for you? It’s your choice. For now, that’s all I can offer. I think I need to lay down for a bit. A little catnap and I’ll be good as new.
Dispatches from NYC is a bi-weekly commentary on America's largest city and its impact on the wider world.