It's a commonly held belief that big cities are cold and unfamiliar and people go about their business rudely bustling by each other avoiding any kind of eye contact. In America, New York City is thought of as the capital of rudeness as an art form. Movies love to show cabbies with thick Queens' accents yelling at some poor slob trying to quickly waddle across the street ahead of the red light.
I'm a transplant to New York City from a small town in Virginia where strangers wave to each other from their cars and entire conversations occur on elevators out of politeness.
When I moved to the big city, I was a little concerned that I'd look like a rube and never quite figure out how to be myself and still quickly move down a sidewalk. Both were true for a little while.
But, the first month that I was here, I slid over to make room for an elderly woman on the subway and as she settled in, without looking up, she offered me a Lifesaver. It was in that moment that I knew I'd be OK and would figure it all out. I also realized that TV is not always the best source to learn about the culture of a place.
Since then, I've had a homeless gentleman insist I take the last seat in a coffee shop, a young teenager ask if he could help me hold a couple of grocery bags on a crowded bus and a woman in the subway see me looking around and tell me where to find the Number 2 train.
And every time there has been someone with a child in a stroller,there has quickly been someone offering to help carry the small bundle up the steep flights of the subway. As soon as the service is over, there is a quick exchange of thanks as the volunteer quickly turns and walks off toward their destination. To a tourist, that could be seen as rude or at least a little cold, but stick around and the truth starts to become more apparent.
When traveling in large packs of millions of strangers every day, all day long, making eye contact becomes a drain on the energy and can slow things down to a crawl. The only way to really keep to a schedule is to walk quickly, eyes straight ahead but with a certain awareness of everyone around you. It's apparent every time anyone stumbles on the street and an entire crowd of people turns to see if assistance is needed.
It's being courteous and even of service without sacrificing personal agendas. The entire exercise has ended up teaching me to be more forthcoming about my own boundaries on a more personal level and saying "no" when there's an invitation I'm not interested in rather than dragging it out to be polite. There's no build-up of resentment and a half-hearted attendance out of guilt and my time is left open for opportunities I'd rather be available for, if only I could speak up for myself.
The real surprise out of this unexpected big city exercise is noticing in hindsight how much my self worth has grown as a side benefit. Every time I make a simple statement about what I desire to do and watch as people honor that with no real drama, I learn that my choices are actually OK. Top that off with the idea that when there is a need helping hands will appear even on a busy street. It's an actual give and take.
All of it's very empowering and encourages people to figure out what it is they truly desire to do, stick to it and yet still be of service whenever possible. Take that idea with you the next time you hit the streets of your community -- that it's okay for you to put yourself first and still keep an eye out for the guy strolling down the street next to you.
More adventures to follow.
Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com or visit www.martharandolphcarr.com.