Your Life Hove onto Your Back (or Your Head)


Woman carrying bananas in Kara, Togo. Photo by Sara K. Schneider, 2008.
Woman carrying bananas in Kara, Togo. Photo by Sara K. Schneider, 2008.


I’m back in New York City, the scene of my 20s, my graduate education at NYU, and the place where I learned the full weight of packing just right. When you leave your apartment, you can well be sojourning for the entire day—especially if home base is Brooklyn. In New York, you live with your life hanging off your back, each shoulder, one or both hands, or any other part of the body to which you can affix essential supplies. For me, in the 80s and early 90s, the calculus consisted of a long and narrow book bag (on my back) for graduate classes at NYU and theatre review-writing, and a wide dance bag (on right shoulder) for ballet class on the Upper West Side. Hands were thus free for scarfing meals while walking, another New York habit. The only thing the feet had to do was walk.

Just as cars broadcast and bear the load of our public identities in just about every other city in America, briefcase, messenger bag, backpack, and multiple tote bags mark the New York subway commuter. As passengers eye each other surreptitiously on the MTA, they may imagine how a stranger traverses the territory over their day. They fantasize the dotted lines that connect one point with the next on another person’s day’s journey, and anticipate him dipping into the contents of one or more bags efficiently, knowingly, so that each motion—for a bottle of vitamin-enriched water, a cell phone, a book to read on the longest ride of the several that day, a Power Bar—conserves energy and needless jostling.

Underneath the elegance of these motions and of the bags themselves, there is, however, a kind of survivalism, a deeply rooted belief that, whatever it may be, if you don’t bring it yourself, it won’t be there for you—even though there are “gourmet” delis on virtually every corner in Manhattan. The early-morning anticipator of every need the day might present wrestles with two aesthetic (and practical) dimensions: a) comprehensiveness—place everything you’re likely to need today somewhere on your body, and b) elegance—bring nothing you’re unlikely to use, lest it become an albatross. Thoughtfully packed bags are artistic.

In December, I was in West Africa, watching the skill with which women carried their goods to market on their heads. Often a companion would hold the wide platter of oranges or other produce as the bearer would bend down, place a piece of fabric rolled into a ring shape on the top of her head to support the weight of and to balance the platter, and receive the load directly onto her head from the hands of her comrade.

The confidence of her walk seemed to suggest a self-reliance in bearing the heavy load once balanced. The relative poverty of the people in the Francophone West African countries I visited contrasts sharply with the material excess in what is arguably America’s capital of consumption. Yet the aesthetics of bearing up under the load, both comprehensive and elegant, of daily luggage rang as being similar—each culture using the body as the vehicle for the transport of goods—though I wonder whether New Yorkers see the elements through which they must make their way each day—the dirt, the crowding, the noise, the impatience of others—as more forboding even than do the Togolese.

With thanks to Steve Carlin, Michael Cormier, and Don Chartier.


This 2007 Flickr photo by Hernan Hernandez of a New Yorker grabbing a bite of banana on the New York subway carries the caption, "Yes, we have no bananas!"
This 2007 Flickr photo by Hernan Hernandez, of a New Yorker grabbing a bite of banana on the New York subway, carries the caption, "Yes, we have no bananas!"



Comment from Phyllis Gottlieb: I also have stared and wondered how woman in Africa can carry the weight on their heads like they do. … My friend and I each had quite a sizable suitcase and a carry on for our trip. At one point when we were taking a train, we hired someone to carry our suitcases up several flights of stairs to the train. He placed the two very heavy and large suitcases on his head and balanced his weight by holding the two carry-ons. We couldn’t believe he was able to walk  up the stairs like this!