I believe that New Yorkers are more polite and considerate than the residents of any city. Considering the discomfort, inconvenience, and even danger they regularly cope with, their behavior is imaginatively and constructively empathetic. Why are we stereotyped
as rude, indifferent, and hostile? That reputation should not stand. The truth is that unheralded, considerate actions happen thousands of times every day.
I have been partially disabled for two years, with little feeling from both knees to both ankles, and tipsy balance that necessitates a cane. Often I stand comfortably, but on bad days the swollen soles of my feet evoke Andersen’s little mermaid: I walk on “needles and burning coals.” Since this neurological anarchy began, I have been offered a seat on every crowded bus and subway I have taken. Granted, it is sometimes a pregnant woman with shopping bags who signals me first, thereby setting off an explosion of offers from abashed, able-bodies men and women. But that in itself is a sign that passengers are aware of a fellow traveler’s need- they were just hoping someone else would take care of it. Like teenagers squirming out of after-dinner dish duty, they are still a part of the family.
Efforts of communal empathy are magical. The shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square can stop with a large opening between train and platform. That gap looks scary as the Grand Canyon to me. I was shying away from a fling into space (much to the irritation of a mob waiting to get on the train), when without talking with one another, several people shooed back the crowd, and others bridged the abyss with steadying arms for me to grab.
The wonders of collaboration were again apparent at a command performance for jury duty, when the anxious summoned are nearly hysterical to spill their justifications for why someone else should do it. Our reporting room was so packed that there was no place left to stand—forget sitting. Four people noticed me, squashed against a doorframe, and went into a huddle. They determined which seat would be best, and one delegate asked its resident to vacate. Then she stood guard, while another wedged through the room and led me to my appointed chair. They didn’t know one another: all squished into distant standing spots without another word.
I am especially moved when some exhausted person, usually a dusty, paint-flaked laborer in heavy steel-toed boots, pulls himself up and, smiling, gestures for me to sit. It seems impolite to refuse, even though his discomfort may exceed mine. So here’s extra thanks to that tired person and to everyone who ever gave up a seat, helped with heavy bags, opened a door, held an umbrella, picked up something dropped, paid a transit fare for a stranger, and most especially to the young man who walked me to my door the night a creep was stalking behind. Because of the unnamed polite, kindness is alive, well, and contagious in NYC. This I believe.
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