good neighbors (in a metropolis)

 

 

 

 

 

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

— Matthew 22:31

 

 

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I have lived in New York City since early adulthood.

New Yorkers cold and impersonal? Too busy to be Good Samaritans?

I have often experienced instances of just the opposite.

 

 

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On Wednesday afternoon, January 3, a bitterly cold day, I was headed home and was waiting for a bus.

No one at the bus stop. I guessed that I probably had just missed a bus and that another one wouldn’t arrive for at least ten to fifteen minutes.

It’s a bleak neighborhood, but there was a “gourmet deli” right there.

I entered and ordered a large cappuccino. There was one customer in front of me. Two young women were behind the counter. I paid $3.95 for the cappuccino.

Through a window, I saw my bus, the Q39, pulling up at the bus stop.

“How long does it take to make a cappuccino?” I said to the woman who had taken my order. “My bus is here.”

I left without a cappuccino or the $3.95. The bus was at the curb, about to leave.

I got on. There were only a couple of other passengers. The driver shut the door.

Then he opened the door again for a “last minute passenger.” A young woman boarded (whom I realized after the fact was the cashier) with cash in hand, arms extended. She dashed to my seat and said, breathlessly, “here’s your $3.95”; handed me the money with a big smile. Then she darted off the bus before it left.

New Yorkers are NICE.

 

 

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When I first moved to New York (to take a job) after graduating from college, I was overwhelmed by the immensity and seeming impersonality of the place. The anonymity was refreshing and liberating, in its own way. But, the City seemed like an awfully cold place. (And, besides its sheer size, all those high rise buildings intimidated me.)

I went to Eighth Street in Greenwich Village once, when interviewing for the job, and asked a couple of young people if there were any like minded types hanging out there, as I had experienced on Boston Common. “If you walk over to St. Mark’s Place, you will find some,” they said kindly.

On Sundays, I would hang out in Central Park, where Sixties types would congregate, perhaps listening to a guitar player singing folk songs, hoping that I would vicariously feel a sense of belonging or companionship.

One day in a subway station, I asked someone a question of some sort. They answered politely and helpfully. I told a friend of mine from college, Sam Silberstein (son of concentration camp survivors), who had grown up in Flushing, Queens, about this. “Someone was actually nice to me in the subway,” I said.

“New Yorkers are people, too,” Sam replied.

 

 

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Yes, New Yorkers are nice. I wonder if it’s the same way in Paris. I don’t think so. Parisians seem to be cold and abrupt. But, I can’t really say, having been to Paris only briefly a few times.

“Even with that sprawl of humanity, New York can be lived as a small town, familiar and compact,” in the words of New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer.

What accounts for this? I am thinking particularly of the way New Yorkers treat one another.

I think there are several factors. People like myself live in a metropolis like New York because they like being amidst other people. They don’t want to live in an ivory tower or, God forbid, a gated community.

The diversity of New York’s population acts as an elixir, a tonic. Immigrants in particular bring vitality and a palpable sense of community to the City. One might think it could be otherwise, that perhaps immigrants would cloister themselves in ethnic enclaves. Perhaps to an extent in the outlying boroughs, but, for the most part, I have found that it’s the opposite: The newcomers, and the recently arrived, or those who have not always lived in New York (which includes a large segment of the population) are full of enthusiasm for everything (and an inherent ingenuousness), including getting to know other people. And the tourists have the same attitude.

 

 

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When I go into retail establishments, restaurants, and the like, the staff seems to be for the most part friendly, eager to relate with you, the customer. (Perhaps a bit less so in chain stores.) I seem to get a welcoming reception and a friendly hello or goodbye over half the time.

If you are in distress, incommoded, or someone perceives they can help you, it’s quite remarkable how often people are ready and eager to do so. When I tripped and fell flat on my face crossing Third Avenue a couple of months ago and within seconds several people were clustered around me, helping me to get up, asking if I was okay, and (one woman) offering to call for medical assistance.

When I was taking photographs on Fifth Avenue near 59th Street last summer and someone with a foreign accident, a man who seemed to be Hispanic with several children, noticed that I had dropped my wallet on the pavement and alerted me to the fact. (I was already walking away and was halfway down the block). Same thing if one drops something or gets up and leaves one’s hat or gloves or one’s MetroCard on their seat on a bus. People including myself swiping their MetroCard for someone who needs a fare, and frequently giving handouts.

And so on. I could cite numerous examples.

 

 

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Re niceness. Of people in general, that is. And Good Samaritan-ship (aka altruism). I prefer to encounter it “in the raw,” so to speak, spontaneously, from average people whom one encounters ad libitum. To witness it bubbling up from the ebullience of good hearted types. Prefer this to organized charity and welfare, to do goodership of the institutional form.

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

   January 5, 2018

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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