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You're not so tough, New York

By BILL MAXWELL
Published March 4, 2007


NEW YORK - I came to the city to attend a meeting of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. I am a member of the board of directors. The association publishes the journal CrossCurrents, which accepts scholarly and thoughtful nonscholarly articles and essays.

I always enjoy my visits to New York, where I lived for a few years as a child and two years as an adult. I visit as often as my budget and time permit. In addition to attending the three annual CrossCurrents board meetings, I come several other times a year to see plays, explore select art museums and bookstores and visit relatives in Harlem.

Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, I have been back at least 20 times. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, I had a sense that New Yorkers had let go of some of their infamous rudeness and edge. I recall reading a few articles affirming my observations.

Indeed, I convinced myself that I felt less tension as I walked the crowded sidewalks in Times Square and elsewhere. I also convinced myself that many of the waiters in restaurants were more cordial. I think I recall reading a travel piece in early 2004 suggesting that the city's hoteliers were holding the line temporarily on prices.

Perhaps, I thought back then - given the international outpouring of empathy and goodwill - New York will mellow and become Gotham the Polite Metropolis.

Fughetaboudit.

New York is back to its old self - if it ever changed.

The elbows in Times Square cut as sharply as always, and the side streets in Greenwich Village are just as snobbish and elitist. The Upper East Side is, well, the Upper East Side. Morningside Heights, home to Columbia University, Barnard and Union Theological Seminary, remains self-absorbed. South Street Seaport is still a grand tourist trap. Although Harlem is said to be undergoing a new renaissance, this Uptown community is as messy as ever.

I must acknowledge here and now, though, that Chelsea feels warm, even during subfreezing temperatures. Chelsea Diner, my favorite breakfast joint in the area, is sunny and polite, and Whole Foods Market on, Seventh Avenue, entices you to return often.

New Yorkers always have been dog lovers. In fact, the dog should be the city's official animal. Dogs - big ones and little ones, cute ones and ugly ones, pedigrees and curs, nice ones and mean ones, long hairs and short hairs - are everywhere. One of my cousins walks two dogs for a wealthy couple. He brags about his salary. He has a right to brag.

I bring up dogs because I saw a guide dog for the blind bring out a real human side of New Yorkers. I stood on a Times Square subway platform with hundreds of other shivering riders. Cold and anxious to get to our destinations, we were a surly and suspicious bunch. We avoided direct eye contact, and we gave one another as much space as possible.

My companion and I wondered why we had not caught a taxi. I was especially wary of the sullen, biker-clad young man next to me. Imagining him shoving me onto the deadly third rail or into the path of a train, I stepped away from him.

Then, something special happened that changed the dynamics of this mass of humanity: A petite blond woman, perhaps in her early 50s, appeared. Blind, she was led by a huge German shepherd. Each of us, watching the woman and her dog, gave her wide berth as the subway rumbled to a stop.

As hundreds of riders poured from the car, the dog pressed its body against the woman's legs to protect and restrain her. When all was clear, the dog gently pulled the woman through the door. The rest of us walked slowly behind them and waited until the woman sat.

The behavior of every person near the woman and her dog changed: Facial expressions softened and smiles appeared. Initially, the dog lay on the floor in front of the woman to mark her space. Then, the dog scooted itself out of the aisle, moving beneath the seat. The woman tucked the dog's tail out of harm's way, adjusted her backpack and settled in for the ride.

You have to be mighty brave, I thought, to navigate New York City as a blind person - even with the best guide dog in the world.

The journalist in me forced me to study my fellow riders, the biker guy particularly. He no longer was the scary biker guy. He had become an average young man aware of the blind woman's vulnerability. I could see that he was impressed with the dog's training and its loyalty.

He was not alone.

A dog had transformed tough New Yorkers into caring people who recognized their own mortality - at least temporarily.