Are New Yorkers, as a group, a bunch of assholes? I know there’s a certain romance to thinking so, especially among new arrivals attracted to the city’s tough reputation. And sure, it’s a lot more intense living here than in some other places. There are plenty of jerks, especially working on Wall Street, and people tell one another to go fuck themselves all the time. But the truth is, the idea that New York as a whole uniquely lacks civility or that New Yorkers are particularly argumentative and in-your-face just ain’t so—at least not compared to when I got here in 1981. Let’s just say manners were different then.
My wife likes to tell the story of an ex who went to see a Clint Eastwood movie in Times Square (what we called the Deuce, very unlike today’s Disneyfied version). During a shoot-out scene, an especially appreciative audience member pulled out a gun and starting popping off rounds at the screen.
Not that there weren’t more conventional expressions of politeness back in the day: My old landlord was a dealer who sold crack out of my building, a business model that necessitated posting a guy the size, shape and weight of a refrigerator in the foyer as a lookout. Told to be nice to the tenants, he’d open the front door when I’d come home at night and say, “Good evening, sir.”
Living in that New York required a certain dispensation with niceties. (Another story my wife tells is of overhearing a woman complain to a deli counterman about her order. His reply: “Call a cop.”) Not so in today’s rich, cleaned-up New York, where the biggest stressors facing locals include finding the best brunch.
With the exception of somebody like Donald Trump (who’s a product of the 1980s, remember), New Yorkers simply don’t act out in public the way they used to. Maybe it’s the fact that if you do, you might wind up on Instagram or Facebook, or maybe it’s just that money changes everything. I certainly don’t miss feeling like my life is in danger, but when walking among tourists and nannies pushing strollers, I do sometimes miss someone telling me to drop dead just for the hell of it.