On Kindness in a Big City


There are days when seemingly everyone you encounter is rude. And not rude in a subtle, didn’t-keep-the-door -open-for-those-behind-him kind of way. They’re angry and downright hostile, and it can be difficult to shake off those encounters. This is what city people are like, you start to think. They’re selfish; they’re mean; they’ve lost their humanity.

But then, just as you’ve lost hope, someone does something extraordinarily kind, and you realize it’s not about the city–it’s about how people behave in general. They run the gamut from saintly to evil and here in NYC, you have to deal with all of it. Every single version of a human is on perpetual display; there’s no escape. We can’t seal ourselves off in cars or in large-lot suburban homes. We’re crushed together–often literally–as we make our way through the day.

Some visitors might get annoyed that our faces aren’t always open and smiling, but that’s not how city residents show kindness. In fact, smiling at the thousands of people you pass on the street on a daily basis might make you seem deranged. Being aware of how much space you take up, not bothering people if they look like they want to be left alone–that’s what being nice is in NYC. Rules that make sense elsewhere don’t really make sense here. And no, the bar isn’t lower. The spirit of humanity is still very much on display.

If I slip on a city sidewalk, I often have too many people offer to help me up. When my husband and I have picked up furniture we bought through Craigslist, bystanders have helped us secure the pieces to a car, and different bystanders have helped us carry them up to our fifth-floor walkup, all without being asked. I’ve observed fellow New Yorkers help those in distress, help those who are injured or lost. And just yesterday, I witnessed something that might seem inconsequential to non-city dwellers: three separate subway riders gently touched the arms of their fellow commuters to prevent them from sitting in a puddle of water. Initiated physical contact is almost verboten here, so this tiny bit of interaction seemed almost poignant. The rescued commuters didn’t mind being touched; they were grateful to be saved from the indignity of a wet behind. It’s a delicate rhythm, and we try and learn it and live it as best we can.

None of this is to say that every NYC resident is kind. They’re everything and everyone. They’re humanity at its worst and at its best. There are too many New Yorkers, and we’re all too different, for it to be any other way.


On Good Deeds

During the holiday season, there are constant reminders of the concentrated power of good deeds. There are talk show segments, and books, and stories that illustrate how even anonymous kindness can determine how you’ll be remembered.

Scientific findings concur that preforming or even witnessing acts of kindness can make you feel better, by releasing serotonin to improve your mood and strengthening your immune system to make you healthier. And even though it’s easy to fall into the dark pit of cynicism here in NYC (as I often do), the times that you don’t are the moments that are likely to stay with you forever.

A few years ago, I was walking in my neighborhood when I came across a woman crying hysterically on the sidewalk. She seemed manic, unhinged, and people were crossing the street to avoid her. She was yelling out: “Please help me!” “Please!”

She made me nervous, and I knew if I stopped she’d try to engage me. But I did stop. Her tears were heart-wrenching. As I got closer, I could see her eyes conveyed coherence–and total and utter despair.

“Please,” she said, quieter now, ready for conversation. “My boyfriend just kicked me out. I’m trying to get home to South Carolina. Can you spare anything?”

I offered to buy her lunch at a diner two blocks away. As we sat, she calmly explained her circumstances. “I don’t know why I followed him here,” she said, tears flowing in steady ribbons down her cheeks, “I never should have come here. I have nothing here. I hate it.”

She seemed delighted when I told her she could order whatever she’d like.  She picked a BLT and Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry soda. As we waited for the food, I ran down the street to an ATM. I took out some money–either $40 or $60, I don’t remember exactly. Not that much in the scheme of things, but I’d hoped it’d put a dent in the cost of a bus ticket down to SC. When I presented the money to her, her eyes lit up. She was so grateful, I almost felt ashamed–for how much it meant to her, for the power it had.

We parted with a hug, and I wished her good luck.

I think about her sometimes. About whether she made it back. The question of whether her story was real never really crosses my mind. Even then I realized: It doesn’t really matter.

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