New York's Not My Home: Smiling at Strangers Edition

Monday, July 7, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

This past weekend I briefly returned to the hustle and bustle of New York City.  With such a mass of humanity packed together, there is a genuine sense that the whole "melting pot" idea for this country originated on a New York stove.  As I negotiated Central Park and various Subway closures, I took a moment to appreciate the racial diversity around me, a past luxury i took for granted, only internalizing its value when it was gone.

All of this aside, there really is nothing like returning to "the city" and, as the first passerby approaches in the opposite direction, making sincere eye-contact and smiling.  Cause, like, that's how we do things up here in the Happy Valley.  Of course, the person I smiled at always has a completely different set of facial reactions.  The first two moves are almost imperceptible.  The faintest flicker of a reflex smile begins, and in the next micro-second, disgust pulls down on his previously-thinking-of-upturning lips.

Me in NYC
Then the eyes get into it.  Widening.  Who IS this guy? Why is he smiling at me?  Is this some sort of new gay signaling that I don't know about?  Should I be scared?  In the next moment, his tough guy persona is right back up. The true New York outfit: One size fits all.

Someone wrote down the unwritten rule.
After this first encounter up in northern Manhattan, I was more cautious about keeping to myself by the time I got further downtown.  But, as I began to cross a numbered street (68th?) with cars inconveniently parked on both sides, I was presented with a quandary.  Bending at the waist, I stuck my neck out, and, while I didn't have the Walk signal, I could see around the parked cars and the coast was clear.  So I began my way across the street.

As I make it a few steps into the road, a sports car turns left onto the street and zooms toward me to make the light.  I'm in no danger.  This car is definitely going to miss me, but not by a ton.  This is when I see the middle-aged man in front of me, about to cross the street in the opposite direction, and who I believe he is using my lackadaisical demeanor as a sign that its safe to cross.

It is not safe to cross.  Which leaves me in a bit of a pickle.

On the one hand, millions of people cross millions of streets in New York everyday, and very few get hit by the countless speeding vehicles.  Is it really necessary to go out of my way to tell this other adult to "wait for the walk signal?"  I mean, I just smiled at a guy and got a look back that would chill the Grim Reaper.  How is this interaction going to be any different?

And on the other hand, I REALLY don't want to see what happens to a body when it interacts with a full-sized motorized vehicle at speed.

With my headphones going at full blast, I hold up my hand to the guy, like a police officer telling the oncoming traffic to hold up.  He makes a quizzical face, not comprehending, and keeps walking.  I keep my hand up, palm facing him, and move my path a bit in front of his.  This creates the tension of future human contact -- which is the New York equivalent of elementary-school cooties.  People avoid it at all costs.  The oncoming man's face crinkles and he remarks cautiously, "What?"

I don't hear him, but his lips are easy enough to read.  And in this second we are at the point of no return.  He is about to step into the road that has an oncoming car bearing down on him, unseen.  I have distracted the poor guy enough that at this point he definitely won't see said car were he to take four more giant steps.  I have to either physically stop him, or leave his fate to the gods of vehicular homicide.

My palm lightly presses against his shoulder, and as he recoils, the car flies by in a blur.  The two events, in concert, help the startled man put together the full picture of what was going on.  He looks back to me and says, "Thanks.  Thank you." 

I nodded kindly in response to his appreciation, and kept on my way.  I mean, sure,  I could have actually said something to warn the guy as he walked toward me.  I also could have said, "You're welcome," after he thanked me.  But hey, this is New York.

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