Attacks bring out a gentler New York

Many residents notice a rebirth of politeness and concern for others

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 17, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- "Please, I need you to move. Thank you," a police officer told a crowd forming outside a downtown subway station Saturday afternoon for a first look south at the carnage of the World Trade Center.

Please?

This isn't the usual vernacular of New York, where pleasantries such as "excuse me" are sometimes dismissed as wasted syllables -- the language of the weak, the lily-livered.

Since Tuesday's terrorist attacks, though, huge numbers of New Yorkers have become gentler creatures. Whether the reason is fear, sadness or vestigial civic kindness, the result is that people are simply nicer to each other than they were at the beginning of last week.

The politeness is separate from the gush of generosity shown -- the gallons of blood given, the $9,000 check a woman wrote to a fire station when told it didn't need more supplies, a restaurant's donation of filet mignon to feed rescue workers at the site of the attacks.

"I've definitely noticed it. People are somber, they're sad. To make it a little easier, they're being nice. Maybe they just realize life is short and there's no time to be rude," said JoAnn Velez, who works in a token booth in the subway, one of the city's most inhospitable environments.

Everybody is noticing it, from residents in Harlem to city dwellers at their country houses in the Hamptons, where some of the most obnoxious drivers in America are braking to let each other onto the clogged roads. Hosts on New York's AM radio talk shows, where screaming, irreverent rants are common, are talking like preachers. "It's not a happy time in New York," said a host on WOR. "God is with you."

Honking cars have become a startling noise rather than the city's theme music. In shops and restaurants people talk in tones befitting those of a doctor's office. As subway riders waited in the rain Thursday to get into a station, no one said a word except for hushed exchanges of "Excuse me," "No problem."

Strangers are looking each other in the eyes, opening doors for each other. They're pronouncing "Have a good day" slowly, as if they mean it. "Somebody told me the other day, `You get home safe,' and she really emphasized it," Velez said. "That caught me off guard."

Martin Lancaster, a cabdriver, says he finally understands what his father was talking about when he said World War II was the best time of his life. "He used to say he couldn't take out a cigarette without someone rushing over to light it," Lancaster said. "Now I see how people are nicer. It's a different attitude. It's humility, maybe."

There are exceptions. Some Arabs and Muslims have been spat at and harangued and are scared to leave their neighborhoods.

And there are those who either don't know any different, such as first-time tourists, or who deny politeness was ever in short supply here. "To me, it's business as usual," insisted Betty Miller, an Upper East Side resident for all of her nearly eight decades. "I think New Yorkers have gotten a very bad rap about that."

But to many people, the civility has been almost jarring. "It's eerie," said Verinia Taylor, a telemarketer who lives in Harlem and works in the financial district. "We've been at each other's throats for so long. But this has affected everybody. We're looking to each other for survival. And all of a sudden, your color doesn't make a difference."

Some people say the city's softened edge will resharpen as soon as the rubble is cleaned up. And some long for its return, if only as a sign that everything is going to be OK. "We got to get back to normal," said Jose Conce, a cabdriver who came to New York from the Dominican Republic in 1986. "We got to get back to arguing again."

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