The Unkindness of Strangers

essay by Melpomene Whitehead

You always hear about how rude New Yorkers are, but, being a New Yorker, I found this a little hard to understand. Everyone I knew who grew up here was quite nice, always went out of their way to help strangers and tourists, give directions, offer opinions regarding restaurants and strip clubs, telling them that it was quite safe to go to Harlem, but probably not a good idea to go ot Bensonhurst... It was the people who moved here from other places with whom I've had troubles and run-ins. I developed a theory: people move to New York because they want to be assholes.

I have examples! I passed out once on the subway. I was on the F train in between Brooklyn and Manhattan, so the train seats were occupied by sun-bleached corn princesses on their ways from gallery jobs and law offices to the Park Slope brownstones that they shared with their future husbands, the gallery owners and lawyers. The riff-raff, aka the darker people (blacks, italians, jews, hispanics) stood grasping slick sweaty poles. I felt the edges go out of the world and colors became pallid and I crumpled to the ground. Forty blonde and perfectly coiffed heads turned towards me, staring. No one moved. Finally a big black guy started yelling at them, "Get out yo seats! The girl has fainted!" Surely, if they had not been frightened by this giant Nubian they would have remained seated, and I would have remained on the ground. As it was, they all looked at each other for a bit as if they were contestants on "To Tell the Truth" before one of them finally got up and offered me a seat. She acted as if she was doing something amazingly generous, and you could tell by the ways the others looked at her they were all sure she was destined for sainthood. I believe some of them may have applauded, and I'm fairly certain she took a bow.

There was a period in my life where I had difficulty walking due to a neurological disorder. My nerves got pissed off at the rest of my body and they punished us by not talking to anyone anymore. I don't know what they were angry about to begin with, but you know how these things go--you forget the reasons but the grudge goes on. Since the nerves were giving the muscles the silent treatment, it was really difficult to walk. The good part was I couldn't feel how painful this all was, and even though it was a very cold autumn and winter, I couldn't tell--the nerves that detect temperatures had joined the strike. I was gimping along for 20 minutes to the bus stop half a block away with my coat wide open in sub-zero temps. And I was really looking forward to the day when I could walk the two blocks to the indian restaurants. I had to use a cane, and still, I fell all the time.

I was living in the East Village then. It was mostly gentrified but there were still a few hispanic and eastern european people left. Like I said, I was falling all the time. I'd be on my way to work and I could tell I took a misstep or that my thighs were giving out, but there was nothing that could be done, and down I'd go. The corn princesses and frat boys would look upon me with disdain and step over me. They acted like I was a junkie, but clearly these people had never seen a real junkie--I was way too fleshy to be a hop-head. Meanwhile, young hispanic hotties would rush to help me, and sometimes they'd offer to buy me a coffee or they'd ask for my phone number. Hey! I may have been a gimp, but I was still pretty cute.

The people I work with for the most part are excepionally rude, and all of them except for me are auslanders. The exception is this chick from Virginia who is so friendly it frightens me, so I try to avoid her. I've heard her tell complete strangers that she loves them, so I can only assume that she's a cult member.

I invite you to duplicate my experiment. Come to New York, get on the subway, see who pushes you aside to get a seat. Chances are it'll be a former farm hand from Iowa.

Copyright (c) 2000 Melpomene Whitehead