On Kindness in a Big City

kindness

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.

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A Dinner with Complete Strangers

New York is not a place where you–willy-nilly–engage people whom you don’t know. If tourists are lost and confused, you might ask them if they need help and guide them to where they need to go. If something especially strange is happening, people might murmur about it between themselves. You might even have a bit of small talk with your local business owners or the girl reading the same book as you on the train. (Scientist think these brief interactions make people happier.) All of these conversations have two things in common, however: they’re short and they’re non-intrusive. Small-town folk might call us rude. We view it as a courtesy extended to us by fellow city dwellers–in a place with almost no privacy, you let people have theirs in public.

Except we broke those rules, as did the total strangers we were dining with a few weeks ago. My husband and I bought tickets to a crab boil at Back Forty, a locavore restaurant in the East Village. Seating was communal, and we were seated outdoors with two other parities of two. We introduced ourselves and after my husband gave a crab-eating tutorial, dug in. I think we all expected to go back to our intimate conversations after that, but we didn’t. For two hours we talked to one another as though we were at a mutual friend’s wedding. We learned about each other’s careers, backgrounds, thoughts on living in the city. A member of the party was from Dublin, and he taught me a fun new idiom: “chin-wag”–meaning a chat or conversation.

It felt very un-New York and very New York all at the same time. These are probably not people I’d be lifelong friends with; I don’t even remember any of their names. It was a nice evening, though, and it reminded me how, in the right setting, a conversation with strangers can be almost as satisfying as one with old friends.

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