|Source: Nebraska State Historical Society General Collection & RG2053-5|
This may be true for the country at large, but I know that most Southerners are under the impression that New York(ers) lack a quality that is the essence of Southern life: hospitality.* I have noted the apparent isolation mentality of people I see on the subway or pass on the way to work. However, I don’t want to commit to that overgeneralization or give the impression that I believe all – or even most – people I’ve encountered show no kindness. Quite the contrary.
[Spoiler alert: Philosophizing ahead. Skip to the juicy story after the break.] Set against the backdrop of aloofness that you get on the first impression (of many people) is generally a congenial spirit. Everyone desires community and connection; we all just have different ways of finding it and varying levels of openness to it. Some people have serious trust issues that deter them from any kind of intimacy, and others are perhaps too forthcoming with their inner selves, but on some level we’re all scared to trust. I am referring not only to relationships with significant others or friends but even the person on the street. We don’t trust them to give us the benefit of the doubt, so we go on the offensive, deflecting their imminent judgment. We present a chilly exterior sometimes, unwilling to engage with anyone and then risk them finding us boring. We read a “high-minded” book to avoid others thinking that we’re unintelligent. We avoid beginning a conversation with the clearly poverty-stricken lunatic on the train because others might think we’re soft or ill-equipped to handle these harsh realities of New York by ignoring them. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, maybe we judge the lunatic, too.
These things don’t make us inherently mean people, just those untrusting and unloving enough to open ourselves to interaction. If we’re not mean, we’re usually not openly kind, either. In cultures unlike the South where hospitality hasn’t been culturally adopted and performed (and often mutated as a result), acts of kindness stand out, shine a bit brighter by virtue of their sincerity.
When a cashier at Trader Joe’s starts a friendly conversation about the bananas I’m buying or asks if I have big weekend plans, it actually has a profound effect on my mood, especially since I’ve just waited in lines that literally wrap around the entire store to buy those bananas.** When a fellow coffee shopper takes a minute to converse about the amazing design on the top of the latte, even share a laugh, it’s uplifting. When a pair of random strangers at the Manhattan bar who strike up an engaging conversation with me and my friend offer to pay for my cab home to Brooklyn because it’s safer than the trains after midnight…well, bowl me over. There is hospitality, kindness, and sweetness in New York.
What about that lunatic on the train?