“Operation Be a Better Human” is officially in effect. Of late, I’ve been on a mission to better engage with my own species here in Gotham. As a city dweller living in the midst of scores of people, I could easily and often make small and beautiful connections with so many humans. Yet, for sanity’s sake, when the crowds become grating, it’s easiest to completely disassociate from the hordes around me, put my head down and charge toward wherever it is I’m trying to hustle. It’s effective — and isolating.
A few months ago, I sat on the subway, happily playing iPhone solitaire when I became aware the train had stopped for an emergency. I half-heartedly glanced up, saw commuters around me sighing and checking their watches and went right back to lining up my aces, kings and queens.
It wasn’t until I peered up a second time that I saw the medics rushing into my car to help a man who lie collapsed a mere 20 feet — not even half a subway car away! — from where I calmly sat playing virtual card games. I chastised myself: “How could you not even realize!?! How is that even possible!?” Later, when I retold the story to a longtime Manhattanite, he proclaimed, “You know what this means? You’re officially a New Yorker!”
Well, shit. That is not the kind of New Yorker I’m aspiring to be. Of course, this was said tongue-in-cheek; New Yorkers are an amazing breed. Still, there was an underlying truth there. In order to survive the masses, we go into isolation mode. And apparently, I’d been trending toward “Island of Val” status.
Fast forward to the other week. I saw a blind man being helped by a small gaggle of people into the ATM vestibule of a bank. They had guided him through the door, but now he stood still, alone in the middle of the room. “Help! Can somebody help me?” he cried out.
I saw my chance. We had a brief exchange. He wanted to get inside the bank. He wanted a security guard. He needed a bank teller. I tried explaining to him that he was near the ATMs but not inside the bank, that no security guard nor bank tellers were anywhere in sight (I’m giving you the side eye, Chase Bank branch on 23rd Street), and that he needed to walk to his right to get inside.
That’s when he started yelling at me.
I wasn’t helping him, he wasn’t where he wanted to be, and why wouldn’t I just take his arm, for god’s sake? The crowd near the ATMs stared. I took his arm. I guided him inside the bank. Eventually, a security guard appeared and took over, and I turned away, flustered.
The 15 or so people at the wall of ATMs were still staring. I pretended not to notice, my head down, heart pounding. And that’s when I heard him. From inside the bank, I heard the man call out, “Thank you! Ma’am, thank you!”
Afterward, I kept thinking about it — I felt rattled. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to be led into an open space by strangers, with no context for where you were in relation to where you wanted to be; no idea how to get from here to there. And then to have to call out for help, just hoping someone would answer.
I think I’d be really scared. I think that I’d yell, too.
We can either go it alone in this big city, or admit that once in awhile, we need help; we need to be part of the crowd. Luckily, the crowd seems to always welcome you in, one way or another. And so, my mental note to self: Engage. Make eye contact. Be kind.
photo credit: divya_ via Flickr