I like to think of myself as being just as much of a bitter, cynical New Yorker as the rest. I have been told by more than a few people that I have a don’t-fuck-with-me walk and glare that rivals the best of them. However, I have felt myself softening lately. Don’t get me wrong, I still throw death glares at people who shove me or jump in front of me while getting on a crowded subway, but my hardened edges have begun to blur a little in the last few weeks. I find myself holding doors open for people, smiling at others, helping old ladies get stuff from the top shelf at the grocery store, and slowing down a little.
I can’t say that I hadn’t begun to notice this shift, but I had been wary of acknowledging what was really going on until the other day. To be perfectly honest, I was trying to chalk it up to the holiday season that has descended like a hawk upon the city. I was rushing off to an appointment after work when I heard violin music wafting down the underground tunnel I was racing through. I started to slow as the music got louder and soon found myself face to face with a woman passionately playing Mozart on her violin. (Yes, I should be able to tell you exactly what she was playing, but the fact that I was able to at least identify it as Mozart should earn me some brownie points here.) Gathered in front of her was a small crowd of people. Even though I was late, I found myself slowing and pausing for a moment. I felt my face and my body soften. Here in one of the grossest places in a city that seems to get even more frantic as the holidays approach, was a moment of beauty and stillness. As I continued on my underground journey to the subway platform I felt a little less rushed, a little less cynical toward all the stupid tourists who got in my way while I was trying to get to the subway.
While on the subway, only minutes into my half hour ride, three men with drums entered the car and plunked themselves just feet from where I had managed to snag a seat. I immediately felt my blood begin to boil. I wanted a peaceful subway ride. I wanted to listen to the music coming from my headphones, not from the subway musicians sitting far too close and looking far too loud for comfort. A few beats in I quickly paused my iPod and found myself nodding my head and tapping my toes to the beat of the drums. I looked around and noticed that everyone else on the car was slowly starting to loosen up and let their bodies grove to the music. Smiles were being exchanged. I made eye contact with one of the drummers and we both smiled, sharing a moment suspended in the rhythmic drumming. Again, I felt myself soften. These guys were good, soulful, and genuine. As much as I hate subway musicians, I had to admit, I really liked these guys and I was thankful to have them entertain me on my subway ride.
I realized on this day of wanting to be a hardened New Yorker, and yet, not being able to keep my guard up, that perhaps this softening has more to do with me than the holiday season. While pushing, growling, snarling at others, and blocking out as much of your surroundings as possible seem to be a necessary survival techniques in a city that is as overcrowded and fast-paced as New York City, it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, the ability to tune out comes in handy so that you don’t walk around over stimulated 24/7. Sure, the need to assert yourself is sometimes necessary if you have any prayer of getting on public transportation during rush hour. However, this does not have to translate into becoming hardened, unkind, or oblivious to what surrounds you. So while I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I may be failing at becoming a stereotypical New Yorker, I may not be failing at becoming a more compassionate human being. I am not proposing New Yorkers start behaving like small town citizens who stop to say hello to every passerby and know all of their neighbors’ business, but I am proposing that the next time you feel like smiling, or holding the door open for someone, or helping the little old lady at the grocery store, or even tapping your toes to the subway musicians you let that hardened façade crack ever so slightly. It’s not as scary as it may seem. And who knows…you may even be greeted with a smile in return. As Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”