When the going get tough

So Hurricane/ Tropical Storm Sandy has slammed into NYC.  I wasn’t there to see it, and oddly, kind of wish I was.  For solidarity purposes.  These are the moments when I know I’m a New Yorker at heart, because even though I’m an ocean away, I’m still there.

New Yorkers have this reputation for being rude and pessimistic, which I have always argued against.  No, we don’t smile at everyone we see, and perhaps we rush by and bang into some people on the way.  It’s a crowded city.  But in any moment of crisis, however small, New Yorkers show their true colors: they are compassionate and eager to help.

Sandy (the storm, not my cousin) is a perfect example of this.  In the aftermath, everyone who has power is offering beds and showers and internet to those affected.  Others are posting info messages about which stores are open and what they have.  And my cousin, who is a cop (not Sandy, she’s a teacher), posted about how he just got home from a 24 hour shift and wants to do more to help.  Those who are affected are posting messages about how they’re ok and even making jokes about it.  Keep calm and carry on indeed.

I often challenge people to an experiment.  If you find yourself in New York, stand on the corner with a map, looking confused.  Or simply deliberate over the map affixed to a subway car for a few minutes.  I guarantee people will stop to help you, and give you the most confusing but well meant native directions you can ask for.  Especially because in New York, there are ten different ways to get anywhere and New Yorkers pride themselves on knowing the best way.  Example conversation:

Tourist: I’m trying to get to the East Village, around 10th street.

New Yorker 1: “Oh, you want to take the A to 14th street and change for the L.”

New Yorker 2: “No way.  The L is full of hipsters.  Take the F to 2nd Ave.”

New Yorker 3: “And walk all the way up? Take the 6 to  Astor Place.”

*Arguing continues until Tourist ends up somewhere in the depths of Queens*

I myself have experienced first hand that New York generosity.  Back in the day, I was simply trying to make a living and did so by trying my hand at an office job for a pretty brutal company.  Partly because I sucked, partly because they sucked, I got fired.  They felt the need to escort me out, which only added to the humiliation.  That plus the gobsmacked astonishment meant that I got on the N train, collapsed into a seat, and burst into tears.  I didn’t care if people looked at me funny.

But they didn’t.  The woman next to me, a large, motherly black woman, said soothingly, “That’s right.  You just cry it out now.  Cry it out to Jesus.”

Across the aisle two people were staring at me and whispering, but I kept on crying.  When they got off the train they dropped a note in my lap.  It read: “Don’t cry.  Everything will be all right.  From two people who love you.”

Years later I was much happier as a teacher, but occasionally prone to forgetting things.  One day, one of those things was my Long Island Railroad pass, which was in my wallet.  If you don’t know, you can board the LIRR without a ticket and they collect it on the way.  I didn’t realize until I was on the train and it was moving that I didn’t have it with me.  If the conductor kicked me off, I would be late for work and really screwed, because I would be stranded in Queens.  I explained this to the conductor in a panic.  Instead of demanding the fare, he said not to worry, that he saw me every day.  As he moved on, the woman across from me held out a five dollar bill.  I tried to protest and tell her that I was ok, but she insisted.  “You’ll need to buy lunch,” she said.

In a city of 8 million people, there are as many examples of good humor and kindness.  I’m not saying that there’s never crime or grit or rudness.  But those aren’t the things that make up the city.  It reminds me of when I used to teach in Harlem.  If I scolded a kid, a frequent response (aside from the bs excuse preceded by “See, what had happened was…”) was “Pssh.  Miss, you don’t know me.”  Often this was true.  One time, I was trying to get the kids out of the hall and into class, and I called for this one girl to come.  Rudely, she held up a finger for me to wait a minute and carried on talking.  I was infuriated at her brashness and let her have it.  Come to find out later, she had just found out she was pregnant.  She was right–I didn’t know what she was going through.

That’s what New York is like.  Those kids in Harlem aren’t anomalies, they embody the city.  They seem tough and sometimes even scary on the outside, but when you get to know them, they’re good, funny, witty, and even kind.  They can frustrate the bejeezus out of a teacher, just as the City can frustrate any traveler. But stick around awhile, and you’ll see the true colors.

New York, I wish I was there with you, now more than ever when the subways are rivers of garbage and the power is out and the crocodiles are swimming around Spring Street like it’s the Everglades.  




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