2016-06-30
A tourist goes up to a native New Yorker and says, "Excuse me, sir, could you please tell me where the Empire State Building is, or should I just go screw myself?"

Is New York a city of moral degenerates? Are New Yorkers inherently less charitable than, say, Iowans or Californians? If morality is measured by politeness, then we're probably are deserving of our reputation. We're fans of honking our car horns at anyone who pauses for even a nanosecond after the light turns green. We take a certain delight in extending a middle finger to the schmuck who cuts us off on the Triborough Bridge.

Unlike many of our counterparts elsewhere in the country, most of us probably didn't deliver Christmas cookies to our neighbors this past holiday, and the average out-of-towner who waves hello to the Joneses in the driveway each morning would likely be shocked at the way we'll do anything to avoid eye contact with our neighbors in the elevator. Mayor Giuliani's recent mandate to criminalize homelessness, which effectively says that if you don't have an elevator in which to ignore your neighbors in the morning you must go directly to jail, hasn't helped matters much.

I often recall the scene
in "Terms of Endearment"
where John Lithgow reproaches a nasty grocery store checker by saying, "Are you being particularly rude today or are you just from New York?"

But I'm not sure that politeness has a lot to do with being a good person. In fact, it would seem that the word "polite" has a lot in common with the word "politician." And, when you think about it, "politeness" is merely an extension of politics. When we are polite, we are being political, angling for a favorable position among our friends and colleagues. This would indicate a certain inauthenticity in politeness, a superficial smoothing out of the edges that, although considered de rigueur for Southerners and Midwesterners, most New Yorkers simply don't have the time or the patience for.

And maybe that's not so bad. New Yorkers are anything but inauthentic. We say what we mean. Furthermore, our hearts are in the right place. I know countless New Yorkers who donate their time and money to charitable organizations, and many relief agencies are so flooded with volunteers that there's a waiting list to become one. So why the bad rap? We're f#!*ing saints!

I think part of our image problem may be that unlike folks in other regions, we don't wear our goodness on our sleeves--i.e., we'd never refer to ourselves as "folks," a term that seems to epitomize the kind of citizenry that throws down a million sandbags when the Mississippi River floods or rebuilds the neighbor's house from scratch when it's been leveled by tornadoes.

Let me explain. I've been referring to New Yorkers as "we" because I am one. I lived in Manhattan for eight years and grew up just 20 minutes from the George Washington Bridge. I had a driver's ed teacher who gave me the finger. But five months ago I moved to the Midwest, a place so polite and supposedly moral that the supermarket clerks carry your bags out to the car and refuse to be tipped.

As a New Yorker in the heartland, I often recall the scene in "Terms of Endearment" (filmed, incidentally, in my new home of Lincoln, Nebraska) where John Lithgow, portraying a callow softie from Iowa, reproaches a nasty grocery store checker by saying something to the effect of "Are you being particularly rude today or are you just from New York?"

I won't deny the fact that New York can be a rude town. But New York is also a working town, and when you work hard, sometimes you're forced to get rude. That's not necessarily immoral. The fact is that many New Yorkers view their careers as the primary expressions of their identities. As a result, their sense of morality is channeled through their work. And many New Yorkers with other things on their minds--like, say, their families--are priced out of the city by the high cost of apartments and schools.

Out here in the Midwest, though, people seem to be under the impression that when a New Yorker puts on his shoes in the morning, it's for the sole purpose of stepping on anyone who impedes his ability to reach the next rung of professional or social advancement. Midwesterners, who associate morality more with commitment to family and religion than with commitment to careers, tend to interpret ambition as selfishness--as if working long hours or trying to make professional strides were a reflection of greed rather than passion.

While it's true that most Midwesterners care more about their families than their careers, they're still no more moral than anyone else. True, they almost never honk their car horns and are not likely to throw tantrums at ticket agents in airports, I suspect that their civility, albeit refreshing and generally more pleasant to be around than the standard vibe at Zabar's, is the result of less population density rather than moral superiority. It's easy to be nice to a ticket agent when there aren't 200 people in line. There's no need to honk your horn when rush hour traffic involves a mere ten 10-minute delay.

I suspect that Midwesterners' civility, albeit more pleasant to be around than the standard vibe at Zabar's, is the result of less population density rather than moral superiority.

As much as Midwesterners might like to think they have it over New Yorkers in the goodness department, the truth is that their gas stations still get held up, the kids still cheat on their homework, and the adults still cheat on their spouses. There appears to be no less divorce in Lincoln than there is in Manhattan. Need I point out that John Lithgow's character in "Terms of Endearment," after flexing his moral muscles to the surly checkout girl, proceeded to have an extramarital affair with Debra Winger's character?

Though no one in Lincoln would believe it, the people I know in New York are among the most caring, decent, compassionate human beings I've ever met. I have a friend who delivers food to AIDS patients every other week. I know someone who, among other small kindnesses, bakes a cake for the homeless man on her corner every year on his birthday.

I once worked with an extremely busy magazine editor whose godson came to her office every day after school so she could help him with his homework. Every time I went running in Central Park I saw elderly people raking leaves around the reservoir simply because they wanted to. Does this sound immoral to you?

Maybe we don't talk to our neighbors--I rarely did--but when 8 million people live piled on top of one another, leaving a person alone is sometimes the best thing you can do for them. Niceness isn't always the same thing as goodness. It's easier to be nice than it is to be good. It's easier to say "Have a nice day" than it is to give someone a good day, and I've seen a lot of New Yorkers give each other good days. No one ever said we were nice, but we're pretty damn good.

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