It seems to be ingrained in our upbringing that we are not to touch people who are neither family nor friends. Lately I’ve been considering how much of our time we spend not only not touching people, but in fact assiduously avoiding touching people.

(Obviously I’m speaking for myself, but I think this applies to American society at large, so I’ll use generalizations.)

Closeness is a fact of life in a city such as New York. On public transit, especially. We all tend to stop moving when we’re close. We make ourselves small and shut ourselves down. We concentrate on a book. We fade into our iPods. We stare at the floor, the ads, the biceps of the guy standing next to us… If someone touches our foot with their foot, they immediately pull it back and apologize. If someone leans in to check the subway map, we shift to avoid them touching us.

It feels like politeness. It looks like politeness. But I think there’s something else there. It seems protective — or defensive. Motivated by Fear? Disapproval? Disgust? Where some folks are concerned, yes, definitely, all of the above. But for the run-of-the-mill strap-hanger, what gives? Is it that famous American spirit of independence we’re always congratulating ourselves on? There’s a sort of coldness in this avoidance of contact, this willful ignorance of everyone around us. It’s sort of sad and lonely. Solitary. Isolationist.

Usually when someone presses against me, I move to accommodate them if I can. But sometimes when there’s an accidental connection, I like to not move — to feel the heat of someone else’s leg through their pants and yours — just to see what happens. It can be kind of exciting. Accidental intimacy. This person would not touch me on purpose, but here we are trading body heat. And who’s the one not pulling away? Me or her?

Sometimes when I’m gripping a pole in the subway car, and someone leans their body against the pole and covers my fingers with their back or their arm, I’ll leave my hand there. I want them to feel that I’m there, that I can’t be erased, and that if they’re uncomfortable, they can move back, but I’m staying put. Sometimes I swear they just don’t feel me there.

It’s my experience that co-workers are especially careful not to touch each other. When we do touch, it feels weird to me. It sounds little alarms in my head. Handshakes? Fine. They’re supposed to happen. I don’t even think about them. But if someone puts a hand on my shoulder — whoah! If someone returns a dollar they borrowed at lunch time, and their hand touches mine — eek! If someone puts their hand on my arm when they’re talking to me — ooh, I could just shudder. And if someone removes a piece of lint from my cheek … I dare not continune.

There was a guy I used to work with who, every once in a while, would give my back a pat or very briefly rub a shoulder or even put an arm around me. It always totally arrested me, a reaction I think (I hope!) is imperceptible. A second later, though, I calm myself. No big deal. Actually, this is kind of nice.

He’s straight. It never occurred to me to take it as anything other than what it appeared to be. Why should I? He thought nothing of it. It was natural and unplanned and meaningless to him. But to me it signified so much more.

I’ve noticed that straight guys communicate with other straight guys with touch like gay guys communicate through touch, but in different ways. Watch straight guys at the bar. Watch them in front of Monday Night Football on TV. Watch them wrestle each other for no reason.

When this guy would touch me in any way other than a handshake, it felt like he was doing something highly unusual. Not wrong or even uncomfortable — just vaguely alarming. Maybe I’ve grown to see that sort of touch as a signal of something else, and when’t not actually, my brain spins a couple times. I don’t know.

All I know is it would wake me up. Every single time it underscored how little I touch the people around me every day — familiar people; friends. I’m always there, but I’m never there. And those meaningless gestures encourage me not to be afraid to hug someone, slap someone on the back, touch someone’s face, touch someone’s arm, grab someone by the back of the neck — whatever.


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the untallied hours

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