Growing up, I heard over and over again that New Yorkers were just downright rude. They were horrible people. If I wanted to go to a place that was nothing more than sitting on the outskirts of hell (and they even have Hell’s Kitchen), then I needed to go to New York City.
I was there last week. And I braced myself for people who were rough around the edges and mean on the inside. I was ready. I’m a teacher. I’ve dealt with some pretty frustrating students. Come on. Bring on everything. I’M READY!!!
I had my armor. I had my emotional sword and shield. I had my thickish skin. I really was ready for the worst of the worst.
And then, on the first day, I met David. He was the morning desk clerk at the hotel where I stayed (with my children and mother-in-law). I asked David for help with finding the closest rail station. Within moments, he obliterated my original choice of the “closest” rail station for the most convenient rail station. The “closest” rail station only had service every hour. The most convenient rail station had service almost every five minutes. Then, he printed out the schedules for both rail stations, confirming what he said but still giving me the dignity of choice. Then, he printed out directions to Secaucus Junction (the rail station of choice) and back to the hotel (Holiday Inn Express in Ramsey on Route 17. Go there!!!!!!! Thank you Ric for telling me about this hotel. It really was the best). But wait, that’s not all. David then gave me subway maps, bottles of water, and more suggestions about all the best places to go.
Thank you David. You truly made the vacation powerfully enjoyable. Your suggestion truly gave us the ability to move around as we chose.
So, we get to Secaucus Junction and are promptly confused as to what to do. We manage to figure out the ticket booth window things, buy our tickets. But now we had to find the right tracks. We searched the message boards and stared at everything with complete and utter empty headedness. Thankfully, I am not above asking for directions and the New Jersey Transit people gave us directions and helped us through the booths.
Still uncertain, still anxious, we tentatively made our way towards the tracks and up stepped Harold. He guided us to the train, got us on board, and just kept his eyes on us. Then, when we disembarked at Penn Station, there was Harold once more, asking, “Are you okay? Do you need anything else?” When we reassured him that we were well, he called out his well wishes and welcomed us to the city.
Now, maybe these experiences don’t count since they happened in New Jersey, right?
Now, Times Square was our first stop and I really don’t want to go into much detail here. I was not happy with Times Square, but that’s my own issue because it was related to my [undiagnosed] Adult-ADD. The stimulation (over-stimulation) of lights and sirens (ambulances) and honking horns and Elmos….lots of Elmos. Everywhere I looked, I was completely over-whelmed by visual and auditory stimulation. Just. Too. Much.
As we navigated Times Square and I was internally freaking out, we were constantly being barraged by people wearing fuzzy costume outfits (Elmo, Cookie Monster, Minnie Mouse, Mickey Mouse, The Avengers, Woody, a Minion, Spongebob, etc.). The strategy was to trap a tourist, get them to take a picture, and then require a “tip” or some form of monetary compensation. In doing a little research, it turns out these individuals are primarily undocumented immigrant workers and this is a method of enabling them to work. My kids and I, without knowledge of the backstory, called them the “Creepys.” But what we noticed was that after we politely rejected the offer and wished them a “blessed day,”, they quickly backed off and melted back into the crowds. Yes, they were pushy, until they heard “No” and “have a blessed day.” Several times, I was even thanked. These people were so much more polite than the majority of the telemarketers who call my house, trying to scam me out of my money and then hang up on me when I say “no” or even request (politely) to remove my phone number from the calling list.
And then, I met Shanikwa, the waitress in Applebees. I had originally decided that I was not going to eat anything or anywhere that I could eat at home. That changed after the constant stimulation misery of Times Square and the Creepys (I won’t talk about the Naked Cowboy or the Naked Girl counterpart). I needed a place where I could remove myself from the constant blinking of lights, the pulsating movement on the huge-screen televisions that were mounted on what felt like every surface. Applebees was available and quiet. Yes, quiet.
Shanikwa was a saving grace. With kindness and grace, she took care of us. She made sure our needs were met immediately. Most of all, when our meal was over, we pulled out a map and started charting our way to the Fashion District. Shanikwa to the rescue! With precision, she helped us figure out the easiest way to Macy’s and the other designer stores. She gave us suggestions on where to go and how to get there. Most of all, she provided a genuine smile and a warmth of personality that was…well…reassuring.
The next day, we were on our way to Grand Central Station…only we kept on getting turned around. Standing in front of the New York City Public Library, I pulled out my trusty map and started trying to figure out what streets I was standing beside and which way to go. “Do you need help?” Looking up, a man in a Vietnam Veteran baseball cap politely waited for me to reject or accept his request. Once more, I am not above a little help when I am a bit lost-ish. Immediately, the gentleman (named Jack) guided my family and me towards Grand Central Station. Upon completing the directions, I thanked him for his help and then for his service.
“Thank you for noticing,” he responded.
I explained that my dear friend and Big Daddy, Dave, had helped me to understand valuing and appreciating the service of others. Somehow, we went from talking about Vietnam and the recognition of veterans to talking about 9/11. Immediately, I learned about how Jack was there, at the World Trade Center, on 9/11. He was in WTC 7 (which collapsed at 5:20 in the afternoon on 9/11). Pulling out his cell phone, Jack showed me a picture of him sitting at his desk, leaning back. Behind him, framed in the window were the old Twin Towers; this picture was taken three weeks before the attack.
I nearly wept at that moment. I miss those buildings. They are a symbol of a broken and shattered innocence. And looking at him, fourteen years ago, smiling broadly because this was a picture for a young man who thought Jack was so cool to be working at the World Trade Center, I could see the old world that has irrevocably disappeared.
I couldn’t ask for his story. I had promised the Boy that we would go to Grand Central Station so he could get a new iPod. But I heard nuances of Jack’s story as he talked about having a “front row seat” to 9/11. He was flippant about the event. But he was there and it had profoundly affected him. But it didn’t define him or destroy him. He had found his September 12th and was bravely walking the city that he loved, a living history, a living defiance against the terrorists.
I’m not done with this blog. But I have so much more to tell, so many more stories of compassion and I don’t want to over-whelm people. I have a college-friend who lives in New Jersey and works in New York. Daniel, my friend, writes over and over about how much he loves this city. I think I understand why. The concept that New Yorkers are horrible or evil or just plain rude is a myth. I am living proof to the testament of New-Yorker-compassion.