On the Kindness and Compassion of New Yorkers

That is not a sarcastic title.

Here’s the thing: New York City is an incredibly difficult place to live. The pace is fast, everyone is competitive, everything is expensive. This City will never hesitate to kick you, whether you’re up or down.

We all find ourselves saying this sometimes

We all find ourselves saying this sometimes

But here’s the other thing: People who live here understand just how fucking tough it is, and there’s a sense of community and compassion that often comes out between us, in the form of small moments of kindness. We’re thick-skinned, and we’re not perfect: I don’t even notice homeless people anymore (though that started for me in San Francisco), much less give them money. But there are a bunch of little things people in New York do to ease the load on each other.

Take the subway: It can be a pretty grungy place, insanely crowded at rush hour, but it’s also a place where you see a bunch of different small kindnesses that have become part of the social contract. People carry baby strollers upstairs for mothers. People give up their seats for pregnant women and the elderly. (One of my favorite subway memories happened a couple of years ago when I was riding the train with my dad and my uncle, and a woman offered her seat to my dad–who is four years younger than my uncle, and was in his late fifties at that point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dad, who still takes pride in doing obscenely difficult hikes, ever look so horrified in his entire life.) Earlier this week, I was on the train when a man slipped and fell stepping onto the platform, hitting his head. It was rush hour, our train had been overcrowded even by the usual subway standards, and we were at Jay Street, a busy transfer station, but most (not all, but most) of the other passengers embarking or disembarking immediately stopped to see if the man was okay. A young woman pushed her way through five onlookers to get to the call button to alert the MTA and the police that someone was hurt. It’s contrary to this city’s reputation, but people were concerned.

Here’s another small example: the buy-back at the bar. At bars in New York City, it’s standard practice that if you’ve ordered two or three rounds from a bartender, he or she will buy you back one. You don’t necessarily have to be a regular, either–you mostly just have to tip well and not be a douchebag. I’ve been to a lot of bars in a lot of cities, and that is definitely not customary in most places. But bartenders know how stupidly expensive drinks are in this town, so they lighten the load for their good customers.

Finally, New York was the city in which John Lennon made his home for most of the last decade of his life. He loved it here, so much that he fought for the right to live here when the government was trying to have him deported. Everyone loves the Beatles, but New Yorkers really love John Lennon, a person who shared our affection for this place, where it’s so impossible yet also so wonderful to live. After John was killed, Yoko Ono created Strawberry Fields, a memorial to him in Central Park, across the street from the Dakota, the building in which they lived.

Let me take you down/Cause I'm going to/Strawberry Fields

Let me take you down/Cause I’m going to/Strawberry Fields

And every year, on John’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, people gather at Strawberry Fields and spend hours singing John’s songs, deep into the night, until the police send us home. If you ever doubt the shared kindness and compassion of the people who live here, go to Strawberry Fields for John’s birthday, because few things are more beautiful than dozens of people singing Imagine, a song about accepting other people, to celebrate a man who they accepted as their own–and as a New Yorker.


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