'Please,' 'thank you' and other New York words Essay: Manhattanites' brusque manner changes to good manners.

March 15, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- "Toujours la politesse."

There's a sign in the window of a papaya-juice shop at 72nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue with that message on it. And more:

"We are Polite New Yorkers

Bravo Mr. Mayor. We support

your fight for a nicer New York."

Then, in smaller type:

"PLEASE don't Expectorate

on sidewalk"

And in even more minute letters:

"(Heh Heh)"

It is the (Heh Heh) that seizes the attention. It suggests a variety of responses to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's current campaign to turn the Big Apple into the Big Pineapple, this latter fruit being the symbol of hospitality and the grace and politeness that attend it.

Is the proprietor of the shop mocking the mayor's efforts to calm the rage of rudeness that since time immemorial has possessed all Manhattanites?

Or is he unctuously apologizing in advance for being so bold as to ask that his fellow New Yorkers refrain from spitting outside his shop? Does he think these people are inured to such pleading?

It has always been widely thought that that is the case, that a certain hardness comes over a human being who dwells in this city for any length of time. O. Henry, the turn-of-the-century writer, made a career of depicting the difficulty of life in New York, its unforgivingness, its lack of warmth and mercy. And he did it by revealing those occasional deviations from this grim norm: those rare moments when humanity shone through.

Rudolph Giuliani is no O. Henry, but he seems moved by the idea that New Yorkers, like people in most other places, get tired of the hard, and want the soft, and that delivering it might pay off politically. And it has.

No sooner was he in office than he gave his police force orders to start cracking down on the perpetrators of what were called the "quality of life" crimes, misdemeanors really.

So the cops chased off the squeegee guys, started running in the panhandlers, rousting the homeless, doing their best to remove the many and varied annoyances, the evidences of squalor, that seem to be a part of city life, but a bigger part of life in New York than any other city, outside of Calcutta.

The qualities of hardness and softness are useful terms of measurement. A friend of mine once moved from Baltimore to Philadelphia to work on a newspaper there, now defunct. A year later he told a mutual friend that he felt a vague, uncentered discontent; he lived in a state of perpetual anxiety and didn't know why.

Our friend, who knew both towns intimately, understood. "You moved from a soft city to a hard city," he said. "Your daily encounters, with everybody from the bus driver to the butcher to the waitress in the lunch counter often as not tend to be abrasive. They are like paper cuts, these encounters, and the accumulation of them by the end of the day puts you out of sorts."

How many times does one meet with a really rude waitress in a Baltimore eatery?

No one ever succeeded in making Philadelphians soft. So why would Giuliani try such a gambit on the steelier Gothamites?

Because most people like it; they are willing, even eager, to be polite given the chance; the polls show it: A Daily News fax poll late last month revealed overwhelming support for the mayor's civility campaign, and a formal survey done Feb. 12 by Quinnipiac College revealed an approval rating of 74 percent for Giuliani among city residents.

Inside every New Yorker, it seems, lurks a Londoner trying to get out. And some of them, possibly even the papaya-juice man, honestly harbor some hope it might work. And who knows ?

Having spent four days in New York recently, we can report that not once was anyone rude to us. Waiters were routinely pleasant, taxi drivers refrained from snarling. On every side we heard pleases and thank yous. Even construction workers seemed willing to enter into the spirit of the thing.

Two men, lost in their own thoughts, collided with each other on Second Avenue near 25th Street. They apologized effusively, one to the other, patted each other on the shoulders, then moved along. For a moment I thought they were going to exchange phone numbers.

We saw a lot of smiles.

Everybody approves of politeness. But not everybody approves of Mayor Giuliani, nor of his strategies. His decision to crack down on jaywalking, for instance. Some people think this a bit over the top, that the city has already done enough for automobiles, torn down some fine buildings to accommodate them. But these days if a policeman, momentarily distracted from his doughnuts, sees you crossing a street in the middle of the block he'll rush out and peel off a ticket.

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