NYC is as curt - and courteous - as ever

As dusk set in, a well-dressed fat man with lizard green eyes and gelled hair walked past me on my street, looked me straight in the face, and said:

"Crack, cocaine, Ecstasy?"

Yes, I live in New York City.

No, I am not accustomed to this.

This instance occurred one week after my return home to Manhattan in August from a year of working in Japan. Still, prior to my work abroad, as a longtime resident of New York City, the only place I had ever been offered drugs was outside a concert hall in northern California.

My encounter with Lizard Eyes brought to mind the theory a Midwestern friend had expounded during a visit to New York last July, in an attempt to explain the city to which I was returning post 9/11.

"People are over the idea of human kindness that got them through the end of 2001. New York is headed for a throwback to its dark '80s days."

Although I had dismissed this thought as asinine, Lizard Eyes had depressed and saddened me - and he was on my street.

Still, out of loyalty to this city, I decided to put the foreign Midwestern theory out of mind and withhold judgment until I had experienced New York anew for at least a couple of months.

As an old newcomer, every day is a trial.

When I walk around my neighborhood, I see more trash than I ever noticed before. This could be a product of moving back to New York after having lived in a small town in Japan for the past year, or it could actually indicate that there is a larger litter problem.

Homelessness seems more pronounced, and this is apparently not just my perception. On Oct. 30, The New York Times reported the unsurprising news that "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, reversing an assessment of homelessness that he made two weeks ago, said yesterday that he believed the number of New Yorkers sleeping in the streets was increasing."

In short, there are fresh problems in this city, and they correspond with those emerging in the rest of the country.

In August, though, I had vowed to give it time.

In early September, when I was out with a friend at a cafe, he had his foot up on a chair, and a woman reached for the chair as she looked at him and said,

"You're gonna wanna move your foot."

My out-of-towner friend was so taken aback that he didn't know what to do but laugh.

My initial reaction was to wonder why an "Excuse me," couldn't suffice.

Finally, Ted the out-of-towner said, "I thought New Yorkers were supposed to be nice now."

I guess not.

But we had encountered the brusque woman only three weeks after my return to New York, and I convinced myself that there was still some adjusting to be done.

At the beginning of October, I was on an F train headed from 34th Street downtown. As is my common practice on a good day, I tried to make eye contact with as many frowning people as possible, in an attempt to get them to mirror my contextually idiotic and sedated-looking slight upturn of the lips. This attempt at eye contact is not an effort to better the human condition; it is merely a way to pass time on the fluorescent-lit, squeaking, and rumbling train.

I looked up at a huge man whose entire body was covered with a navy blue jacket bulging with padding. Only his brown boots and shaved head were free from insulation. Headphones, tucked into his ears, hung loose around his neck and he moved his head with the seemingly slow, very cool rhythm. He looked straight ahead.

We were coming upon the West 4th Street stop, and a slight, unshaven young man, wearing a fleece jacket, bellbottoms, and a ski hat got up in preparation to exit. As he stood, he reached to grab a pole. He missed. The train began to brake, and the little hippie was hurled backward, only stopped by his ultimately successful blind reaching for a pole - any pole. The scene lasted about three seconds, but those seconds were time enough to redden his face with humiliation.

The huge padded man looked at him, smiled warmly, and waved his palm down in a "No man, it's all right," gesture. The hippie shrugged, smiled, and nodded as his face returned to its normal hue.

In a city where image is everything, the friendly exchange of a headphoned man in a bulging jacket excusing a hippie for looking silly in public, can be a very touching thing.

In other news from New York, about a week ago I was uptown on the bus headed from East side to West side. A young man sat in the aisle seat across from me, wearing jeans and a leather jacket. As I glanced over, he looked up at a healthy, young woman standing in the aisle, and offered her his seat. She smiled, thanked him, and refused.

The Midwesterner claims that human kindness is dead in New York. But not only is it alive, chivalry is, too (at least on that uptown bus going from East to West).

My assessment - as one who has left and returned after a turmoil-laden year - is that New Yorkers are no more rude or disgusted than they were before. After a year away, I can safely say that New Yorkers are just as strong-willed and curt as always; no more bitter than they were before the terrorist attacks, no less rough than ever.

Although curtness is rampant, and litter and homelessness ubiquitous, the subtle goodness that makes us all believe that humankind is predominantly decent still pulses strongly under the surface.

A New Yorker will look at another New Yorker and help him stop blushing. This is the timeless and unspoken human consideration. It can only be brought about by perpetual exposure to one's fellow man and an intrinsic understanding of human nature.

It won't be destroyed by Lizard Eyes, or by anyone else.

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