Last Thursday, I walked home from classes and saw traffic backup piling into an intersection. It wasn’t Times Square Status by any means, but there was a bit of kerfluffle, since it’s not an intersection that is usually very busy. It was easy to peer ahead and see the source of the commotion was a row of ambulances (ambuli?) huddled around a storefront, pulling someone out on a stretcher and loading him or her into the vehicle.

It was strange; I’ve not been in the city very long, but I’m already desensitized to the sound of an ambulance, and I’ve seen more honest to goodness stretchers in my two months here than I’ve ever seen in my life. I was prepared to turn the corner onto my block unphased by empathy until a loud, impatient horn blared from behind the flashing lights. As if to say, “Excuse me! Your life-threatening emergency is getting in the way of my evening plans!” or perhaps even more macabre, “Could you hurry your death along, please? I’ve got a date.”

It was the horn that woke me to the grim urgency of the moment, the dispassionate industry of city living. How could I reconcile the ruthlessness of a city that seems to have embraced me with arms wide open, the city that tucks me in at night? How do these themes exist together in one living space? In one city block? In one human?

I’ve said before on my blog that I’m not sure if I want this city to harden me or if I want to stay compassionate and vulnerable. But in a moment where I almost forgot to pause, an insensitive horn reminded me to say a little prayer for a person I don’t know, and a big prayer for the rest of us 8.4 million New Yorkers who no longer think twice about ambulances and stretchers.