Contrary to popular American opinion, New Yorkers are by and large a gentle and long-suffering lot. Imagine having to stand in a long line to see a movie, to purchase the token needed for entrance to the subway platform, to buy a postage stamp, to get a morning container of coffee for consumption at one’s desk, to make a bank deposit, to cross a bridge, to see an art exhibit, to get hold of a sandwich at lunch time. Imagine being crushed cheek-by-jowl in a bus or train each day, summer and winter, for, say, an hour’s ride after a full day’s work. Imagine being accosted on virtually every street corner by someone brandishing a paper cup rattling with coins and claiming to be hungry, or dying of AIDS (the latest and evidently most successful of beggars’ ploys), or in need of a bed or a ticket “home.” Or stopping in your car for a red light and being set upon by a strapping young man with sponge and bucket in hand, who all unbidden takes a soapy swipe at your windshield and then holds his hand out for a quarter.
This by no means exhausts the list of occasions for discomfort, distemper, and yes, fear. It seems not an exaggeration to suppose that for people elsewhere in the country—very much including those attracted to the idea that New Yorkers are somehow uniquely and characteristically aggressive—such conditions of everyday life might easily lead to riot, or at least to untoward public displays of anxiety and rage. Yet such do not in fact, except under certain special circumstances, occur in New York.
One further assault on the nervous systems of New Yorkers is that provided by what might be called the culture of the underground. On any given working day, the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority estimates, some 3.3 million people ride the subways. Once inside the trains, they are confronted by a string of advertising posters affixed in rows above the windows along both sides of each subway car, to which the eye of the rider, sitting or standing, is naturally drawn.
Once upon a time this advertising space was devoted to calling one’s attention to a variety of wares—clothing, foodstuffs, cosmetics, and other aids to comfort or amusement. There were also the postings, long since gone, of the results of a monthly competition for the title of “Miss Subways.” Each new Miss Subways was selected—by what body of authorities one never knew—from among a pool of young women working at various kinds of jobs in the city. Her picture and a brief paragraph describing her work, hobbies, reading preferences, and ambitions would be on display for about thirty days: long enough to make her a figure of recognition to everyone, the honorary Sweet Young Thing of the riding community. Then she would be replaced by a successor. Such a city-sponsored competition, being an utterly unapologetic exercise in “looksism,” would of course be out of the question in the age of feminism; but it would in any case nowadays be far too innocent-minded a distraction to find a place in the underground world of public communication.
For those who now wish to impress their messages upon the minds of the riding public, life has become a most knowing and sophisticated business. On any given day in any given subway car a traveler might see the following (culled, as it happens, from a single twenty-minute ride on a Monday morning) or an assortment exactly resembling it, on display in the advertising space:
—A photograph of an outspread hand, accompanied by text reading, “If your lesbian or gay partner is using one of these to hurt you, we have one to help you—New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.”
—A photograph of a group of children in what looks like very early adolescence, crowded on both sides of a volleyball net and reaching for a diaphanous balloonlike object, accompanied by a text reading, “Condoms. Play with them but don’t play around without them.” (On the opposite side of the car, an identical placard carries the same message in Spanish.)
—Two separate placards, again, both in English and Spanish, reading “Pregnant? We can help—Lincoln Women’s Services,” and “Safe Abortions—All Women’s Medical Pavilion.”
—A drawing of a young girl who, at the behest of Planned Parenthood, confides, “My best friend Tanya, she thought she had VD. She was too embarrassed to tell her boyfriend or her mother. I’m real glad she told me, ‘cause I knew who would help.”
—A picture of a nursing bottle filled with whiskey, carrying the legend: “Having trouble weaning your little baby off the bottle?—Seafield Pines Hospital.”
An organization called Lifenet seems to provide succor to the young, inviting phone calls “If adolescent problems are pushing you to the limit . . . —or if you find yourself in the position of the young girl who announces in a separate advertisement, “I couldn’t believe my mother would actually lock me out of the house.” Then there is an organization called ACI, represented in the same subway car by two placards with extremely graphic photographs suggesting that addicts “Call us when you are ready to get off your high horse” and/or “ . . . ready to give up your pipe dreams.”
But the piece de resistance is a running comic strip—so far there have been two installments, also in both English and Spanish—telling the story of a young woman who will not have sex with her young man because he refuses to wear a condom. (“I love you, but not enough to die for you.”) When last seen, her young man was in a state of shock and wonderment at the discovery that his buddy, to whom he has gone to complain about this state of affairs, uses condoms regularly. Can a happy resolution of the story be far behind?
Intermingled with all this are a number of announcements of quick out-patient cures for hernias, anal warts, bunions, hemorrhoids, and acne.
If memory serves, it was Goethe about whom the following anecdote is told. A forward-looking, enlightened friend of his—an early-nineteenth-century example of what would nowadays in the United States be called a “liberal”—wrote a book about his vision of the future and sent it along for comment. Goethe replied that this new society about which he had been reading sounded like a fine place, but if its logic were realized, one day the whole world would be nothing but one great hospital, and all the people in it attendants ministering to one another.
Attending nurses ministering to one another—that is what New Yorkers are commanded to be by the culture of their underground travels, and a goodly part of their common civic life above ground as well. In the world of publicly sponsored and paid-for compassion, life is a disease, or if you will, a string of diseases for which new cures are daily being proposed.
People who live in less congested places may be able for a time to cultivate the illusion that their civic life is less taken up with devotion to disease and the diseased—or taken up not at all. But abortion, AIDS, drugs—all the things that good liberals have declared to be diseases in order to hold no one but the public in general, and of course the government in particular, responsible for them—are stirring the consciousness of the entire country. What may set New Yorkers apart is the resigned shrug, or perhaps the deeply wise one, with which they seem to greet each new demand for, and promise of, public cure.
Indeed, because they stand in such long lines together, and so often feel one another’s elbows, and step on one another’s toes, they have come to know full well that the kids won’t use condoms, the little girl with VD won’t go to Planned Parenthood, and even the teenage pregnant black girl for whom they are advertising almost certainly won’t show up at Lincoln Women’s Services or All Women’s Medical Pavilion.
It doesn’t make New Yorkers pleasant, all this shrugging and all this enforced intimacy with strangers, but it does enable them to offer one another a little more forgiveness—or at least a deeper comprehension of human weakness and failure—than is to be found in the nice clean wards of Goethe’s hospital.
Midge Decter is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City and a member of the Editorial Board of First Things.