Future Tense

We’ve All Cried in Public. This Site Lets Us Map Those Feelings.

Screen grab from cryinginpublic.com.
There’s nothing shameful about sobbing.
Crying in Public

When the tide is up, seawater salinates the rivers that moat Manhattan. If you were to drink from the Hudson during those briny hours—which you shouldn’t, of course—I imagine it would taste a little like tears.

New York City is, however, awash with salty streams of its own. As anyone who’s spent enough time on its streets knows, this is a city that invites public emotion. You may not have sobbed in front of strangers yourself, but you’ve certainly seem someone else in the act. “I have yet to cry on the Staten Island Ferry or the tram to Roosevelt Island,” Jessica Grose wrote in 2005. “But I’ve only lived here nine months.” It’s been more than a decade since I lived in New York, but I’ve teared up at least once during almost every visit since. Last year it was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Next time, on the recommendation of a friend, I might try for a cathedral. “They are,” my friend tells me, “beautiful and always empty.”

But there are other spots aplenty in the city, and just as many stories to accompany them. You’ll find many of both on the website Crying in Public, a collaborative mapping tool built by the programmer Kate Ray. The site presents visitors with a map of the New York City area and invites anyone who creates a free account to tag sites where they’ve wept or otherwise felt strong feelings. It then lets them write short descriptions of what they went through, which appear over Google Street View images of the locations in question. This is a city reimagined through the sometimes shattered hearts of those who’ve lived in it; not a collection of monuments and skyscrapers, but a miscellaneous array of ephemeral experiences.

On the map, each locale is indicated by a suggestive emoji hieroglyph. Some of these sigils have obvious meanings (the broken heart symbol, for example, connotes a breakup, naturally), but Ray offers translations for others: “kicked out of a bar,” “vomited,” “trouble with authority,” and so on. That range is fitting: In a tweet about the tool, Ray suggests that she created it with Valentine’s Day in mind, but even a quick scan of user contributions suggests that our strongest sentiments are only occasionally romantic. Here you’ll also find stories of educational failure and political frustration beside anecdotes about bodega cats and bicycle accidents.

Individually, the stories are tantalizingly brief, and their fragmentary quality couples with the spirit of public anonymity to lend many an almost universal charm. Scan the map for long enough, and you’ll get a sense of the emotional range that a city can contain. “Had first kiss with a guy on top of a Star Trek pinball machine,” reads one at E. Houston St. and Avenue A. “Cried inside Whole Foods bc I was frustrated with work,” reads another just a few blocks away. Some are raucous (“Had sex on a couch at Webster Hall”), and others are apologetic (“i’m sorry i brought my drunk friends to your party”).

Not all of these stories are sad, and only a few seem to have actually involved tears, but to explore Crying in Public’s New York is to glimpse the many things that move us, and the many ways we move through the world. In aggregate, these piecemeal memories add up to something both more and less than any one person could contain. Whether or not they leave us crying, these are the things that spill out of us, irrigating the public sphere with private emotion. It’s fitting, then, that they’ve found their way onto a map, since its coordinates speak to the ways we feel together, even when we’re at our most alone.

I’ve often written before about the ugly feelings that digital platforms help generate. For those of us who live in that virtual landscape, Crying in Public presents a welcome reprieve by inviting us to instead reflect online about the emotions—good and bad—that we’ve felt offline. Like Lucas LaRochelle’s similar Queering the Map project, it might ultimately give us space to rethink the ways we’ve been, and not just what’s happening now. For the moment, at least, the site is still sparsely populated with stories (if its data is to believed, no one cries on Staten Island), but it will surely fill up in time. As it does, I’ll keep an eye on the cathedrals.
Where better to find a kindred spirit?