A WINTER WONDERLAND
January 12, 1999
"How many people can you take?" A man in his fifties was looking up at the driver of a horse-drawn carriage. They were on 5th avenue, standing on the lip of Central Park. His voice was pure New York City Nasal.
"Four," came the answer. The horse snuffled and stomped his front hoof.
"But I got a family of six here."
"What do you want me to do about it? Shoot two of them?"
Welcome to New York !!
I was born and raised in California. Here, and perhaps all over the world, we believe that New Yorkers are rude and unfriendly. I recently spent a week in New York and I found that they are in fact rude and somewhat surly, but the astonishing thing I discovered is how helpful they are.
On our second day in the city, Leslie and I got into a full subway train. I felt completely safe because there was enough room for her and myself but not for my backpack which was securely clamped by the door. I could pretty much swing freely knowing that I was attached to the subway car.
Leslie on the other hand was stranded in a no man's land. She was surrounded by people and had no where to hang onto. She's too short to get a grip on the ceiling like the guy next to me. I rode most of the way with either my face or the back of my head in his armpit. But Leslie didn't even have that. She was a free floating radical in danger of being expelled by the subway system.
A small blond woman in a fur coat said, "Oh honey, I know how it is. You can hang onto me," and offered Leslie her arm. Leslie is a west coast Protestant. This means she feels it is imperative to keep a radius of 18 inches free on all sides. She didn't want to be a bother. She thanked the small woman but politely refused.
That was until the first big jolt hit. I swung softly from side to side, bumping into the tall guy's armpit but otherwise was unhurt. Leslie grabbed onto the woman's arm with both hands and held on for dear life. A guy in a business suit must have seen the look of terror on Leslie's face because he grabbed her arm and steadied her until she could move to a safer spot.
It could have been the season, holiday cheer, and the possibilities of a new year floating through the air or it could have been self-preservation. If Leslie went airborne from one of those big jolts the subway makes there is a good chance she would have taken out three or four innocent people.
This sort of assistance was not an isolated experience. We got a very clear set of directions, including train numbers and colors, from a young African American woman. She noticed the panicky looks on our faces as we studied the map and then saw the stations whizzing past. Turns out we were on an express train. We were lucky to get off when she told us to or we would have ended up in Queens. (There is room here for a what-the-hell-would-two-lesbians-do-in-queens joke but I'm not going near it.)
A bus driver not only answered a question about his route but also made an announcement, "Girls, this is your stop," while we zoned out and looked at all the pretty lights like a couple of tourists.
At Bloomingdale's, a full-figured Latina clerk either coming on or getting off her shift lead us to a phone. She could have given us directions that would have included, "take a left at the live models in the fur coats and then go behind the giant Santa packing a suit case." Instead she took time out and raced us through the store at a break-neck speed, pointing out items of interest. "We got a lot of chocolate up there now," pointing up a wide staircase to what looked like a store within a store. "Over here we got stocking stuffers." It was a section full of things no one needs but every one ends up buying, like a flashlight with a radio. We bought two later that day.
When we couldn't find the key to our hotel room in our coat pockets, backpack, pant's pockets or shirt pockets a maid let us in. She didn't make us go through a DNA verification or even a full cavity search. I kept wondering if she knew us from our garbage and unmade bed or if she simply had a policy of letting in any yahoo into any room, just to get us out of the halls.
Don't get me wrong - none of this was done with a polite tone or a friendly smile or even with the implication that they had the time to help. In fact their manner was always brusque, their speech hurried and their tone harsh.
In California, I'm not sure any of this assistance would have been given. Instead, just as Leslie was crashing through the subway window and spilling out onto the third rail, someone would have smiled and said, "Have a nice day."
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Copyright 1998 by Laura Jiménez.