A young woman on a narrow sidewalk in Chelsea reached into her handbag the other day and pulled out a smartphone. Then she did a remarkable thing. She stepped to the side, getting out of everyone else’s way while she checked her messages.
What made this worthy of note?
Simply that every day thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers walk with eyeballs glued to smartphone screens as if therein lies revealed truth. Every day thousands of those New Yorkers hog the sidewalk, walking so slowly that they may as well be standing still. Elsewhere, they practically crawl when entering elevators or reaching the top of subway stairs.
Totally self-absorbed, they couldn’t care less about how they frustrate others who are walking behind them in a notoriously fast-paced city.
As I passed the young woman, I thanked her for her thoughtfulness. She smiled. She was only doing the right thing, she said.
It struck me, not for the first time, that New Yorkers ofte n make life tougher than is necessary for one another, that there are all sorts of small ways, like stepping to the side, in which we could ease up a bit – we, meaning both officialdom and individuals – without losing the grittiness that is a source of civic pride.
Is any of this cosmic? Of course not. Far more important issues loom, huge ones:
Homelessness is at record levels. Poverty rates are high. Too many children leave school barely educated, facing bleak futures that may include prison. Recovering from Hurricane Sandy will be difficult and costly. Serious planning is needed as to how, or even if, to build along the water. Far too many corrupt politicians grab every dollar they can lay their mitts on. The race for mayor will soon exponentially increase the tonnage of blather.
But life, including its vexations, tends for most of us to be built on the small stuff. This is, admittedly, a modest end-of-year reflection. It also happens to serve as a quiet farewell to my column.
After 20 months, it is time to call it a day for The Day. Actually, the end comes after more than 17 years of columnizing, including my long-running gig, which was called NYC. Unlike The Day, it appeared in print as well as online. But circumstances change. They have for me again, though I seem destined for at least one more act, of a different nature, at this newspaper.
I suppose this would be a convenient moment to dwell on the state of newspapers and of city columns. But, frankly, I don’t feel like it. I did have some thoughts on that theme in my last NYC column, in April 2011; you may read them here if you wish.
Among the points I made then was that correcting injustices was never a sure thing for newspapers and their writers. Some readers believe – and bless them for it – that all we need to do is expose a problem and it will b e solved. To borrow from myself in that final NYC scribbling, âNo columnist and no newspaper can make something happen if those who hold true power do not wish it. That’s natural law.â
But I also wrote then that sometimes words can at least âmake the day better for people.â To return to the theme set forth earlier, New Yorkers can do the same for one another in simple ways. Here are but a few observations, offered at random. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.
Must the subwaymeisters drive riders crazy with emergency exits that set off alarms that screech mercilessly? Nobody, absolutely nobody, responds as if an emergency were in progress when those doors are opened. All that the alarms do is assault people’s ears and add a needless annoyance to the subway ride, with no apparent safety benefit. Shut them off.
While we’re talking about the subway, how difficult can it be to repair broken escalators and elevators in a timely fashion? In a city with a population that is aging, these routinely useless devices are an insult to many older people â” and to younger ones with strollers and bicycles – effectively telling them that they’re not really part of the mass in mass transit.
Why can’t the city crack down on landlords who encase their buildings in those hideous sidewalk sheds and then allow the work to drag on forever, assuming it is done at all? It’s as if officialdom wants New York to be as ugly, and soul-deadening, as possible.
Are New Yorkers so self-involved outside their homes that they cannot hold onto their empty coffee cups or old newspapers until they pass a trash basket? Do they have to toss their garbage to the pavement or onto the tracks, thus making life harder for the poorly paid working stiffs who must pick up after them?
Hey you, is it really necessary to spit out your gum on the sidewalk? Or swear loudly nonstop in public, heedless to the sensibilities of others? O r barrel your car (typically an S.U.V.) into a crosswalk and send pedestrians scrambling? Or ignore red lights on your bike, or ride the wrong way on one-way streets?
Yes, it’s nice to believe that discussing such matters in a newspaper column would produce solutions. But as with bigger issues, no change will comes unless people want it. That’s still natural law.