New Yorkers don’t get the credit we deserve for being good humans. I always meet kind New York heroes and I’m 100% not one to chat with strangers.
This morning, I squeezed inside the downtown train with my lunch container. I shared a corny, polite exchange with an older man.
“That’s Wordscapes? I love that game.” he asked.
“Yea, it’s addictive.” I looked up at him but fixed my gaze on this screen puzzle. I had to unscramble the last word or die trying.
“Try A-D-R-A-L-L,” he offered.
“I already tried that, it doesn’t work,” and then I dragged my finger across those letters to show him. Another nonsense word. It looked like “Adderall” so I couldn’t blame dude for choosing it.
“And then when you use your hint, you get so mad because you like — “
“ — I coulda got that!” we said in unison.
I had one stop left before mine. He could see my frustration but he kept smiling his old smile and chuckling. He made my day and didn’t even know it. He gave me a moment to write about in earnest. He had much more to do, including moving whatever was in his duffle bag.
Last week, on my way to a book event, I saw a public display of safety on the 6 downtown.
A woman, 30s, with long, straightened hair boarded in a rush.
“If you keep following me on the train, I’m gonna report you to the cops!” she shouted. Passengers froze what we were doing to assess. In New York, we decode threat levels with a formula that calculates: the volume of the distressed, the eyebrow angle of the nearest bystander, and the distance to the exit. We can’t stop for everything but we can dodge spewing vomit or piss. If a woman shouts like this one did, and my neighbor removes his earphone, it’s code red.
“It’s not ok. I’m going to call the authorities on you. I see this every week with you following ladies onto their train.”
We were all looking intently at a younger man, maybe 20s, leaning on the door. His head tilted down, he twitched his way into a half-grin but never spoke.
A big man, seated behind the woman shouting, removed his white earphones. As the woman in front of her reached out her arm to ask if she was ok, he spoke up.
“I’ll ride the train until you get off. I’ll ride it after my stop.”
And then another woman seated near the door:
“I be seeing him do that all the time. He not slick. That’s nasty. I see you! You nasty!” Then she explained to her fellow passengers how often he rode this same train and what he did.
Other riders pulled out their phone cameras and pointed them at him. Lens witnesses popped up two by two. He shrunk into his mid-length locked hair. The strands folded around his face as he became smaller and also, somehow, bigger in our minds.
There are New Yorkers you’ll meet in heaven. The perfect New York day wraps around you in a way that heaven would mimic if it had the chance. The divine city day disrupts your distracted mind with kindness. I’ve enjoyed perfect New York days because of the New Yorkers I’ll describe now, who are humble angels.
- Salt-pepper-ketchup? The dedicated sandwich chef at your local deli can change a neighborhood of moods. He toasts the bread right. He lets the cheese melt. He knows Hot Pepper Guy versus Sweet Pepper Woman. In his brain, the index of regular orders sticks, and the newbies matter too. Deli sandwich man is the first New Yorker you meet in heaven.
- Happy train conductor. This person is not annoying unless you want him to be. His mission, against all odds, is to deliver a planned script to every grumpy passenger from morning commute to late-evening rush. He wants to make you happy no matter how long you spent looking for your keys on the way out. No matter how many bullshit work emails you ignored. He is repeating 60 words forged by 10 years of experience. One R-train conductor I had recently turned routes A-C-E-1–2–3 into the Jackson Five tune. “This is Times Square (Forty Deuce!) where you can transfer to the…A-C-E …easy as 1–2–3! The 7 train. Q-W going to QUEENS or BROOKLYN!” A masterpiece orchestra, honestly. Juantxo is the 2nd New Yorker you meet in heaven.
- Smiling public baby. Baby does not know any better. She ate well and she’s happy. Much of the world is inconsequential to her. So now, she can flash her cute smile at you and claw her baby fingers at the tepid subway air. Her mom’s on the phone, scrolling IG and tapping WhatsApp responses. Here’s you and the baby, sharing smiles that won’t survive past the ride. Her toothlessness bumps like favorite albums and her innocence proves you’re still alive. And real. Baby wears a winter cap with chin strap and careless drool. You wear heavy regrets and rain boots. You both feel no weight. Adelaide is the third New Yorker you meet in heaven.
- Caribbean nanny. Braylen doesn’t annoy the Caribbean nanny. She’s the only soul he’s unable to bother. He wants this toy. He wants that snack. Merle volleys each request like a slow serve and soothes him at once. Braylen’s coat drapes his wrists and his backpack defies gravity, inches from falling. Merles picks up the coat. She pats his head, and stays stern. Merle knows Braylen won’t face real resistance in his life so this is her job. Provide resistant love. Make Braylen aware of his gifts. Braylen will never appreciate love from a low place so he demands again. Merle is the fourth New Yorker you meet in heaven because she sealed her rest long ago.
- Rainy dog shit cleaner. Devin’s not going to be one of those people who leave shit behind. He moved to Lefferts Gardens three years ago with a wave of people who could afford it and save a little to boot. Darrin, from Marketing, moved to The LG, and he’s from here. That makes it cool. He doesn’t mean any harm. When he walks Max, a rascally terrier mix, he makes sure he isn’t messy. The smokers leave butts behind and the pitbull owners litter the park with shit. Max is a good dog and Devin’s a good man. Even when it snows, he brings the bag and paper towels. He could leave the shit in the grass or act like it wasn’t him but he doesn’t act that way. Devin is a good New Yorker and the fifth one you meet in heaven.