New York City: An Outsider
January 1, 1970
I arrived on a Saturday evening, fresh off a plane from Paris. I was unsure what to do first. I had to unpack, buy toiletries, get myself a sim card, a subway card… I had never been anywhere in the United States. I felt overwhelmed trying to wrap my head around the fact that I was in a new country. And I wasn’t just anywhere.
I was worried that I wasn’t going to get anything done the next day. In France, the entire country is basically closed on Sundays. I told my sister in my disappointment, “Oh, it’s Sunday tomorrow. Nothing is going to be open.” She looked at me, slightly confused and said, “You’re not in France anymore, honey. This is the city that never sleeps.”
. . .
An Outsider’s First Few Impressions
I was definitely somewhere new. From the first few days alone, it was clear to me that I was in a special place. In certain areas I heard Spanish almost as much as I did English, as well as did I hear French, Chinese, German, and several other languages that I couldn’t identify. I saw the crowds, the lights, the hotdog stands, the delis around every corner. I had never seen a more exhaustive assortment of cuisines on offer. Many of the bars and cafés are probably more photogenic than you will ever be. It’s expensive (even more expensive than Paris!). The thrift scene is excellent. You will find here people with every color of hair you can imagine. People sporting monochromatic outfits will be sitting next to those in the most outrageously colored and patterned ones, next to those more on the naked side. I sometimes see people who look like they’ve time traveled from another era, or jumped straight out of a cartoon. It’s a city full of characters. Tattoos, piercings, unshaven armpits, suits, designer bags, manicures, leather, plastic –there is everything. It is loud, colorful, and crazy. Also, the subway smells like pee. Do all subways have this fate? To smell like pee?
What stuns me the most though is that not only is everyone so different, but also that everyone is also so unapologetic about it. I gather that New York is the place that enjoys and attracts the most diversity in the world, simply because in no other place in the world is diversity more appreciated.
Dispelling the Myth
Prior to arriving, I heard a lot about how rude or nasty New Yorkers can be. Almost five months in and my encounters with such types have been few and far between (although I do imagine that the corporate world is another story). One of my favorite parts about this whole experience is how often I see strangers act so kindly and respectfully towards other strangers, no matter what they look like or how different people seem from one another. If anything, differences are far more celebrated than they are silenced or shamed. Just don’t take your sweet time walking or otherwise block any busy body else’s way. The city does have its fair share of creeps and jerks and snobs but I don’t believe New Yorkers are given enough credit for how pleasant and helpful so many of them actually are. I sometimes take note.
. . .
Instances of Human Kindness in New York City
July 21, 2016
Lady reaches in her bag and offers orange juice to a homeless man. Removes headphones. “You want some orange juice?”
August 4, 2016
Crowded on the subway. Am standing. Losing balance. Little boy asks if I want to sit in his place.
August 29, 2016
Random person on the street: You’re very beautiful this morning!
Random person: I said, you’re very beautiful this morning.
Me: Oh, thank you. That’s very sweet, thank you.
Random person: Yup. Bye now!
Sept. 8, 2016
On the subway. Was feeling stressed and down. Couldn’t help a few tears from falling. A man sat down beside me. We were next to each other for a few stops before he said, “I’m sorry, I see you in the corner of my eye. This might be weird… but, maybe I can give you a hug?”
I wasn’t exactly in a hug-a-stranger-on-the-subway kind of mood. So I said, “No, thank you. I’m okay,” as nicely as I could.
Two stops later, I stood up to leave when the same man called out, “Miss?” I looked back and very warmly smiling he said, “I wish you all the happiness.”
October 7, 2016
A lady sits across from me on subway. A blind man walks in, sits next to lady across from me. The two strangers start talking. Can’t continue with my book, start to eavesdrop.
Man: Good morning!
Lady: Blessed morning. How are you today?
Man: I am wonderful. It’s been a great morning so far. A little girl ran into me on the street just a few minutes ago and started telling me about how her mom bought her some new shoes today. She kept saying, “I have new shoes! I’m wearing new shoes! Do you like them?” And I said to her, “Oh, honey, that’s lovely! But I’m blind.” And she looked at me, at first all like, “Oh…” trying to understand. But she just brushed it off three seconds later and said, “Sorry. So, do you like my shoes?”
Lady: Aw, she is so innocent. That’s adorable!
Man: It really was! I told her yes, that I absolutely adored them. You know, it is what it is. We just have the make the most out of what we’re given. Sometimes you get tested, sometimes you get shoes!
The lady next to me: You think you have problems, right? You see people like that (gestures at the lady and the blind man across from us who are laughing and smiling), and—
Me: …and it keeps you in check.
The lady next to me: Exactly.
Both the blind man and the lady across from me get off several stops before I have to, but I decide to go after them. I say, “I’m sorry, but I just had to come tell you that I think you two are such beautiful people. You really are.”
We talk for a few minutes. His name is James. Hers, Jackie. We make small conversation and eventually said goodbye. I get back on the train.
. . .
I suppose if you pay enough mind then that’s a typical NYC kind of ride. You hop on, experience something extraordinary in the subtleties of a moment, then just like everybody else you take your place in the crowd. You go your own way, everyone else goes on theirs.