Saturday, December 5, 2020 -
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New Yorkers: cramped spaces, open hearts

Are New Yorkers nice? Of course, you can’t generalize about eight million people. But New York has always had that tough reputation for people being short tempered, indifferent or downright rude.

I remember my first visit to NYC on my own. I was 19. Having been raised in the shelterd Orthodox Jewish communities of Jerusalem and Denver, I was prepared by many with lots of speeches before departing on my own to the Big Apple. Hold your purse close to you. Always look ahead like you know where you are going. Don’t make eye contact etc.

On my first day at Port Authority bus terminal, when I was completely overwhelmed, all the rules went out the window. I stopped a total stranger and asked for help. He comprehensively explained all the transportation details I needed to know for my particular trip.

I thanked him.

But before smiling and walking on, he paused and said, “Be sure to close your purse and keep it close to you, and for your information — whenever you are waiting for the subway, look for a narrow piece of red-and-yellow or black-and-white striped wood suspended from the ceiling — that’s the conductor car. You should always get onto the conductor car.”

So why is it that New York gets such a bad rap? I was thinking about it recently when this week I needed to move a piece of furniture from a friend’s apartment. I didn’t know how I would move it, and the doorman overheard me stressing to a friend on my cell phone. He approached me and lowered his voice and said: If I use the building’s moving cart it would help make it easier, but it’s not officially allowed, so he’ll just have to pretend he knows nothing about it. We exchanged a conspiratorial grin.

I wheeled the cart out of the building onto the street past the cross walks and traffic lights and reached my friend’s apartment building. I waited outside the steps for my friend to come downstairs with the furniture. Every passerby in this crazy busy city stopped and asked whether I needed to get the cart up the steps and into the building. Everyone offered to help!

So what is it? Why are New Yorkers notorious for their quick, uncaring, pace of life? I suppose the large quantity of people and traffic, the long commutes, the overcrowded trains, the subways that break down or whizz by you during rush hour without stopping because they are filled to capacity, the 4:17 train that pulls out of the LIRR as you are panting, out of breath, to make it somewhere in time — all this can make your blood rush with anxiety. And maybe the landscape of the skyscrapers closing in on the sky expresses this too.

There is definitely anxiety in the crowds. But, for some, I think there is also relief in the crowds, in the anonymity. There are definitely those who mouth off or walk on and don’t care, but that’s probably because so much takes place in the street here. In the suburbs, people have their cars and living rooms to air their grievances. In NYC, everyone is crammed into their apartments in the myriad high buildings and the street is almost like everyone’s apartment’s common area.

Sometimes it feels like there is no room to breathe, like the city is so cluttered and opressive, especially in the sticky heat of the summer. So maybe going the extra mile to be a courteous city dweller can be a bit much on a long New York day. But maybe people just assume rudeness about New Yorkers more than it actually takes place. Or maybe people just project their anxieties about life in general onto the anonymous group of rushing New Yorkers who always seem to be jostling for space.

All I know is, whenever I walk on West End Avenue or Central Park West, one formally dressed doorman after the next nods and smiles, and will occasionally call out a “good evening!”

To make a long story short, after trying to navigate this wheely cart with all the furniture on it and my friend and I twisting and turning on the street, we finally succeeded in getting the furniture from her apartment to mine — turns out, with the voluntary help of a Federal Agent who was passing by and entering my building just as we reached the front sliding doors.

Are New Yorkers nice?

They talk a tough talk, but they’ll also be tough and help you out of a tough spot — without any personal handshakes or names exchanged and you never even know who they are.

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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