Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The New Yorker in us all

I came to New York expecting the hardened city I’ve seen in countless movies and shows based here, a place pulsing with methodical fervor but lacking human warmth. I was steeling myself for New Yorkers’ impatience with tourists and hoping to avoid stepping on anyone else’s toes.

And then I met Joe.

He was just like what you’d expect of a New Yorker: green heavy coat, scruffy goatee, clunky workman’s boots and that crisp, coarse New York accent that plays sarcasm so well. It was Sunday, our third day in this town, and we were riding the subway (or “train,” as the natives call it) from Coney Island to Atlantic Avenue in the center of Brooklyn. One woman cautioned us about that stop as she left the train, saying that it was a terrible area. After the doors closed, Joe looked at me from across the subway car.

“Don’t believe it,” he said.

I asked why not. He waved his hand dismissively.

“She’s from out of town. There’s no way she’d say that if she was from the city.” He paused, gazing out the subway window as if reviewing what he’d said. Then he continued.

“People always see this stuff in movies and TV about how if you come to New York, you’re going to get mugged or shot. People think gangs are everywhere. People think they’re going to get run over or yelled at.” Again, he waved his hand (a gesture that seemed to come as naturally as breathing). “That’s crap. It’s a safe city. The police are everywhere. And we’re nice people, too.”

It was the inelegant but poignant speech every New Yorker longs to give but never has the chance to. And thinking back on the encounters I’ve had with random strangers in the streets and tunnels of this town, I’d have to say that Joe was right.

All you need to do is ask for directions.

During our trip, we have asked several people for the location of buildings, of subway stops and of restaurants (some of which we were standing next to). Not one of them brushed us off or ignored us, and most showed more than a passing interest in us.

One man in the middle of Times Square asked where we were from. We said Spokane, and he commented on the floods in Spokane at the time. Every police officer we have talked to has been kind, conversational and helpful. One woman helped a member of our group from one subway stop to the next when her card would not work. Two guys in a Brooklyn bar went out of their way to direct me to the nearest train station. Many New Yorkers have offered restaurant recommendations, including an elderly couple that guided us when we were lost. An older man even gave us a personal tour of the Chrysler Building lobby and Grand Central Station.

In fact, we have yet to meet a native of the city that has been rude or standoffish to us in our more than five days in town.

That says something.

It tells you how much New Yorkers love their city. Kindness toward visitors shows love of place. The city’s residents have a remarkably giving attitude to those who come to their city, contrary to what you might expect from Law & Order or NYPD Blue. It is clear to me that the people in this town have a sense that they are united by something greater than themselves: their community. Moreover, New Yorkers seem to realize that citizenship comes with the responsibility known as civic duty. It can be as grand as running for office and as miniscule as picking up trash, as consuming as heading a community center and as effortless as helping 12 strangers from Washington state.

I think we can learn something from New Yorkers.

Now, as ever, our country faces innumerable crises, starting with the economy and continuing all the way down to the potholes in Spokane’s roads. To address them, we can create policies and regulations. We can raise taxes and reduce expenditures. We can vote, we can lobby and we can yell. (And hey, we can even blog.) But crucial and foundational element to solving the issues that confront us is today as it has always been: a sense of our responsibilities as American citizens.

It’s not something the government can enforce and it’s not something the economy can require. Civic duty is the profound “X” factor that drives individuals and nations to greatness.

From what I’ve seen, New Yorkers have it. As we look toward a new presidential administration and the most trying time in recent American history, I can only hope that we, as Americans, can bring out the New Yorker inside us all.

-James Spung

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