Raves: You say New Yorkers aren't nice people? Politely get outta here

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As a former New Yorker, I felt compelled to respond to Eileen Garred's April 17 Portfolio essay: "New York Newcomer Is Getting the Hang of Helpful Strangers."

While I do not discount the awe she must feel at the kindnesses she has encountered since moving to Pittsburgh, I have to protest the image she paints of New York City and its residents.

I moved to NYC in 1998 with no job, no apartment and about $2,000 in my pocket. I knew about five people who had moved there after graduate school to try to break into the theater scene, so I was lucky enough to crash on an old futon for a couple of weeks until getting my feet under me.

My first job carried an annual salary of all of $25,000, which, by New York standards, was less than peanuts. My first apartment was an illegal basement studio that had no kitchen and flooded when it rained. I spent a lot of time at the corner pizza joint, Pizza de Napoli. Tony, the owner, a native Italian, gave me free dinners if I helped fold pizza boxes.

Maybe I was the anomaly. I was often told by other transplants -- but never by a native -- that I was too nice to be a New Yorker. In fact, friends from college couldn't believe I'd moved there. They didn't think I had the necessary grit.

My now-husband thought he'd heard wrong when someone told him I'd moved to Queens. I grew up in Ohio as the daughter of a United Methodist minister, so I know "nice." While I sometimes saw the proverbial underbelly of the city, I also reveled in how wrong the stereotype of scary New Yorkers was.

The homeless man who lived for a while in the vestibule of my bank in Astoria, Queens, was always kind. He'd hold the door open for you and often stepped out onto the sidewalk to allow you to conduct your ATM transaction in private. Sure, he was constantly talking to himself, but he had a deep, melodious voice that reminded me of Barry White. When I stopped seeing his familiar red hoodie every evening, I missed him.

The girls who worked in the corner Duane Reade drug store would always inquire about my roommates if we hadn't been in for a couple of days. They were used to seeing at least one of us every day and worried about us if they hadn't.

When my parents visited me, the waiters at Michael's Diner promised they'd always keep an eye on me. Once, when I was sick, they delivered chicken soup to my apartment and added fresh orange juice at no charge.

Commuters of all stripes helped parents carry baby strollers up the steps of subway stations. Without breaking stride, someone would lift the wheels on the front of the stroller while mom or dad lifted the handles. I once carried a toddler up four flights of steps in Times Square for a mother who had two suitcases and was headed for the Port Authority. I know if I were to take my own daughters to visit now, I'd receive similar help.

Weather often brought out the best in people. During a morning downpour, one young man in an obvious hurry to catch the train jumped over a huge puddle and then reached back to help me leap across it, too, our umbrellas soaring over our heads. At that moment we were Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds -- no matter that we never spoke a word.

After 9/11, news media from around the world commented on how New Yorkers had pulled together and were taking care of their neighbors, as if they'd never done that before. After the East Coast blackout in 2003, the same remarks were made.

In both instances, New Yorkers acted like, well, New Yorkers. Motorists offered strangers rides out of Manhattan as thousands walked over the 59th Street Bridge. Restaurants with gas grills threw open their doors and gave away hot food to all comers rather than letting it go to waste in crippled freezers.

Even though I've lived in Pittsburgh for more than eight years, there are still days that I long for my other adopted city. Watching the footage of Hurricane Sandy on TV was particularly tough because I knew so many people in harm's way. When they showed the cars floating down the streets, they were streets I've walked.

Like the saying "Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day," maybe everyone's a New Yorker when they live there. New Yorkers love their city and open their welcoming, helpful arms to their neighbors. Just like Pittsburghers.


Rachel Vermillion Betta of Castle Shannon, who works in fundraising, can be reached at rachel.betta@gmail.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Raves" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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