When I lived in Rochester, I was coached on how to order my first (and only) garbage plate from Nick Tahou’s. For the unfamiliar, a garbage plate is a legendary combo of mayonnaise-based salad, grease-based potatoes, and something that resembles a meat product—all topped with a questionable meat sauce. There’s a reason why I only went once. (Ben, as a true Rochesterian, consider this your invitation to defend the garbage plate’s honor in the comments section if you feel so led.)
Nick Tahou’s isn’t a place where you saunter up to the counter and consider your options. The rules, as they were presented to me, were: speak quickly, speak clearly, don’t ask questions, don’t be complicated.
That’s kind of how I assumed most interactions would be with people in New York City. People are busy. People don’t have time for you. It’s a shame that you are lost despite the fact that you are walking around with a responsive digital map in your hands, but legitimately, no one cares.
It can appear cutthroat. Walking through Penn Station at 8:30 in the morning is an exercise in confidence and agility. There should be a giant sign that says, “HE WHO HESITATES IS LOST. LITERALLY.” Because if you hesitate while you walk, you will do the stutter-stop-stutter dance that can only result in getting trampled by an agitated sea of people. Even beyond Penn Station at foot traffic rush hour, walking anywhere in NYC can seem like the Olympic trials for speed walking.
But, in most cases, I’m learning that it only looks cutthroat.
Everyone, it seems, is secretly paying attention, ready and waiting to help.
A lady with a stroller was standing at the bottom of a staircase exiting the subway the other day. One person started jogging around her, but the next person asked if she wanted help getting her stroller up the stairs. And then a second person stopped to help, wondering the same thing. There wasn’t even a kid in the stroller. They just wanted to make sure she could get it up the stairs safely.
Later that day, I was feeling the time crunch of stopping for a smoothie before finding my train home, which was boarding at a platform I’d never used before. I stood there looking confused for less than a full second when a lady shouted, “It’s on the other side” as she kept plowing forward to wherever she was going. And there, across the hallway, indicated by a sign that made no sense whatsoever, was the staircase that led me to the platform I needed.
And those were just two tiny examples pulled from a single afternoon of public transportation.
I was talking to a coworker about how surprising it was to be met with so much genuine kindness in a city not necessarily known for that and she said, “We love our city! And we want other people to love it, too.”
It feels important to note here that most people I’ve encountered so far have a self-professed love/hate relationship with New York City. These are people who, unlike me, do not put their heart eyes on every time they step foot in a subway car. They’re real about the fact that it’s not always the easiest place to be.
And yet, only having warm, positive feelings about the city isn’t a prerequisite for being a champion of the city.
There is something decidedly unselfish about that. It feels like being thoroughly for something rather than being on the fence about it.
As a constant analyzer of everything, ever, this mindset does not come naturally to me. I live on the fence. And it’s just as uncomfortable and pointless as you’d imagine.
I seem to have this deep commitment to not being fooled into believing that things are better than they really are. It’s like I’m afraid that if I commit to embracing the pros, the cons will sneak attack. This is dumb, obviously. All I’m doing is stopping myself (and others around me!) from fully enjoying good things that actually do exist, regardless of other circumstances.
I’d much rather take a note from New York’s book and become a champion of the people and places I love, the work I do, and the things I believe in. To let the cons be a noted reality, and to give the pros a higher ranking.
It’s nicer for everyone that way.
P.S. To the kind man who, on my first day in the city, gave me step by step instructions on how to walk forward to cushion the blow that the subway line I was looking for was literally right in front of my face—you are my favorite of all. Thank you.