Monday, June 27, 2005

A New Yorker's Rant

I'm taking a break from politics and foreign policy to get something off my chest. Consider this a helpful set of recommendations for visitors and certain of my great city's residents who lack basic common sense. This post is the outward manifestation of, and frustrated retaliation for, over a decade's worth of tiny cuts, totaling well into the thousands. This is an attempt to help out those who frolic on vacation in New York City, and those that live here but somehow remain ignorant of the most basic of courtesies. This is a rant.

Sidewalks, Staircases, Subways and Streets


The topic of sidewalk etiquette is one that is of particular significance to me, seeing as how my last three apartments have tracked nicely with a map of the top tourist attractions in the Big Apple so I, more than most, have come in contact with herds of that peculiar breed of American and foreigner known as touristus domesticus and touristus exoticus respectively - more commonly referred to as the uninitiated sidewalk pedestrian. Despite this attempt at taxonomy, I suspect that many of my nemeses are actual New Yorkers bereft of basic social skills. Nonetheless, some basic rules for the edification of all.

1. Stay to the Right: This is probably one of the only times you'll hear me utter that phrase, so tuck it away in your mind. Traffic moves on the right side in America folks - this applies to sidewalks, stairways, automobiles and the almighty baseball diamond. Why, you might ask, was this arbitrary directional norm adopted? I have no freakin' clue, and I don't much care. For those contrarians out there that prefer the left side as the chosen path to travel, Great Britain and other related venues offer some prime locations to get your left on, but in New York City, and America in general, stay so far to the right that you'd make Karl Rove blush (under the assumption there is actual blood coursing through his veins...I kid, I kid).

So, when walking down the crowded streets in Manhattan, or up and down congested subway stairways, stay on the right side or prepare to get a rude shoulder or elbow. This simple rule helps maintain order and movement out of what would otherwise be gridlocked chaos which would somehow bring about the apocalypse. Trust me on this one.

2. Keep Moving: Every sidewalk in Manhattan is like a conveyer belt, especially during peak hours. When you are walking along the sidewalk, rest assured in the knowledge that there is a queue of harried New Yorkers behind you nipping at your heels, marching in lockstep along with your cadence, just waiting for the opening to make a pass. So for heaven's sake, don't just stop suddenly the moment the thought occurs to you. Such sudden movements can cause a nine-person pile up leading to serious minor injuries [oxymoron intentional]. I don't care if you just realized you overshot your destination, that you left the front door open, the iron on, or the keys to your suitcase nuclear device in the hands of an aspiring, though unstable, jihadi. The way to change course on the sidewalk is to give a look around first and then veer off to the side in a way that won't send ripples of disruption through the caravan. This is especially true when traveling in groups. Which brings me to my next point.

3. The Herd: If you're ever out with a group, and good on you for having friends in the first place considering your utter lack of social graces, try to remember that there are other people who might, you know, also want to use the walkway. When traveling four or five abreast down the sidewalk, like some version of the Sharks and the Jets, understand that one or more of you just might have to yield to the demands of two way traffic. The way to decide who moves is easy: refer to Rule #1. The person farthest left should move to the right either in front of, or behind the group. But remember, don't stop suddenly. But even gradual stops can be problematic as I will explain in Rule #4.

4. Not Down on the Corner: If you're lost or confused or trying to decide which direction or destination you want to gravitate to next, whatever you do, don't pick a primary hub of a corner to hold your impromptu summit. Sounds like common sense right? But you'd be amazed how many times a group will choose the epicenter of the corner of Busy and Crowded to discuss dinner plans or consult a map. Please follow the deceleration dictates of Rule #2 and choose a fringe area off to the side to congregate if you must.


1. See: Rules #1-4 above.

2. Mother's Day Is Everyday: You lazy, self-important, insensitive cads. When you see a new mother with a stroller standing at the top or bottom of a flight of subway stairs, for the love of everything decent in the world, help her carry one end of the unwieldy stroller up or down as needed. This is easy to manage, will only take you a matter of seconds, she will be infinitely appreciative, flash you a warm smile and you will be safe in the knowledge that her toddler isn't hurdling down the stairs to her screams of panic like some drawn out, slow motion scene from The Untouchables.

3. Stairmaster: You lazy, self-important, insensitive cads. When you get on a crowded elevator in a building with 10 or more floors, don't you dare hit the button for the second floor. Unless you have a bona fide physical impediment, step up to the plate and walk up one whole, actual flight of stairs (note: obesity doesn't count as a physical impediment and is actually a stronger argument to use the stairs). Think of it as exercise, your own personal mini-stairmaster workout for the day. Something to spice up your otherwise sedentary monotony behind some desk in some cubicle somewhere. That and you can avoid the hostile stares of those in the elevator who are thinking about what a lazy, self-important, insensitive cad you are. The only thing worse than the second floor ascender is when you're on the trip down in a crowded elevator and it stops on the second floor and someone gets on. You mean to tell me you can't walk down one flight of stairs? Sloth be not proud.


1. Waiting In Vain: There's little that sets the blood aboil like being cut in line. When waiting for what seems like an eternity for a subway on a hot, dank platform, the anger is multiplied by a factor of ten - especially since long waits mean the platforms get crowded as riders pile up so the eventual train that arrives is likely packed like sardines from prior stations' pile ups. So, if you want to avoid altercations, hostilities and occasionally violent outbursts, don't wait in the background, and then when the train arrives, push your way in front of people who have been waiting longer then you. That is a wanker move.

2. Speaking of Sardines: Even if you're late for work, even if you're itching to get home after a hard day's toil and even if you're the top surgeon on your way to perform urgent quadruple bypass at Columbia Presbyterian, have the decency not to jam yourself into a subway car that is already bursting at the seams with people. Will ten minutes really make that much of a difference in your life? More than having what many would consider fairly advanced foreplay with a hundred or so commuters at once? (note: not as sexy as that might sound to some of you deviants out there). Yesterday, on the 1 Train, I heard a pregnant women frantically shouting because people were inadvertently pushing at her stomach in order to squeeze into a car that was already well past capacity. Priorities people.

3. Fools Rush In: Here's a simple one, and easy to master too. When waiting for a subway, even if you're excited to be heading wherever it is you're going, when the train comes to a stop and the doors open, step aside and let the people off the train before attempting to enter. It's easier this way. Think about it logically, people get off train making room for you and others to get on train. Oh yeah, and it avoids nasty head-on collisions.

4. Observe the Hierarchy: You lazy, self-important, insensitive cads. This goes out to the young and able-bodied subway riders. When a subway is crowded, and some are forced to stand and straphang, be chivalrous and offer up your seat to those who might need it more. This is especially true for those that rush to claim a seat even though they're only going one or two stops. Haven't you just spent almost an entire day sitting behind a desk? Won't the stand do you some good? There's a basic hierarchy to observe and it goes like this: First, deference should paid to pregnant women. They're carrying an extra person for the love of God. Next, young mothers or fathers carrying infants or pushing strollers. That should be self-explanatory. After them come senior citizens, first women then men (excuse the implicit sexism, but it just feels right and some rule is needed). Show some respect you ingrates, with some work, luck, good fortune and wit you too can aspire to be old one day. This will be just one of your rewards. After that, the seat's all yours. Enjoy.


1. Get In Line: Though you see them everywhere, not all taxis are unoccupied, and during certain hours of the day and in certain areas, their scarcity is acutely felt by would-be travelers. Here's a tip for the neophytes: when the light is on illuminating the taxi's number on the top of the taxi, it is unoccupied so hail away. When the light is off, someone is inside so no need to waste your wave and whistle. But no matter what, you should never come to a curbside in which you see someone already trying to hail a cab and move ahead of them down the street to preempt any taxis heading in your direction. Show some grace and wait your turn. There is a place in hell for people who think this is somehow acceptable conduct.

2. Beware Cyclists: New York City is awash in bike messengers, and their ubiquity has only seemed to grow since the prophetic, cinematic tour de force known as "
Quicksilver" starring Kevin Bacon. Here's the rub though: you have to look out for these bandits of the bicycle. They operate in a world without rules, full of expectations but sans responsibilities. The takers who never give. And it's not just limited to the professionals. What am I talking about? The fact that cyclists completely ignore all traffic laws, but want to be treated as if they were cars when it benefits them. In other words, if you dare to step into the street when the coast appears clear from car traffic despite the "Don't Walk" sign, but fail to notice an oncoming cyclist, they will rip into you like you just killed a puppy for sport. But, if you have the "Walk" sign (the green light in other words) and all cars are obediently waiting at their red light, don't be surprised if you get blind sided by a bicycle rider who thinks red lights shouldn't apply to them, only the green. Seriously. Always look both ways, even when you have the right of way.

There. I feel better now. And you? Well, you got a useful guide to some of the basic etiquette of urban life. I suppose there's one more thing I should throw in - a warning of sorts. If you ever find yourself in the Meatpacking District, shuffling between the many clubs and bars that punctuate that part of town, you should know that those aggressive prostitutes that pepper you with propositions, well they're actually.....nah, why ruin the surprise.

(hat tip to the Daily Show for inspiration at the end).

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