David Usborne: Our Man in New York

Take me back to Florida , where 'Have a nice day' doesn't mean 'Get out of my face'
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The Independent Online

Three days in Orlando last week and I am still wiping the smile off my face. They don't call Florida the Sunshine State for nothing. It's not the sun they are talking about - indeed it was drizzly gray throughout my stay - so much as the constant gleam of polished dentures exposed by the grins of its mostly geriatric residents. It's disturbing to realise that when they say "Have a Nice Day" down there, they mean it.

Three days in Orlando last week and I am still wiping the smile off my face. They don't call Florida the Sunshine State for nothing. It's not the sun they are talking about - indeed it was drizzly gray throughout my stay - so much as the constant gleam of polished dentures exposed by the grins of its mostly geriatric residents. It's disturbing to realise that when they say "Have a Nice Day" down there, they mean it.

I stopped at three toll booths between my hotel and Orlando airport and each time the operator looked me in the eyes and smiled. Three hours later, driving from La Guardia to my apartment in Manhattan, I find myself honking at a black Nissan that brazenly cuts in front of me on the FDR Drive. Out shoots the driver's left hand, one finger pointing me to Heaven. I have the urge to rear-end him.

No doubt, this is a dog-eat-dog city where aimless expressions of goodwill to your neighbours are considered downright weird. I know to stay silent when I find myself in a crowded confined space like a lift or broken down subway carriage. If strangers talk to you at all, most likely it will be to fire an insult if not at you then certainly at your mother. Gothamese for "Have a Nice Day" is "Get Out of My Face".

It's not that you won't ever find a friendly soul in the city. Tourists often voice their surprise that New Yorkers are not nearly as rude as their stereotype would suggest. But stereotypes grow for a reason and in our daily lives here gentility has given way to habitual aggression. Ours is a pressure cooker existence, where nothing can be done quickly enough and anyone who gets in our way is dead meat.

As an uncivil state of mind it's contagious. While I will still give up my seat for anyone more infirm than me, twice recently I have got into quite unnecessary spats with perfectly nice seeming people, both women, who dared to disrupt my forward motion. One barged ahead of me in a cinema queue and the other snatched a taxi I had flagged down. The old me would let such incidents go by without a murmur. The new me bawls, "Not so fast, lady." I won the cinema skirmish but lost the taxi. I forget exactly what I shouted in the woman's direction as she sped away, but my aunt Ann would have blushed.

Towering egos

I blame our public leaders and media for the examples they set. Brickbats fly daily on the tabloid front pages. The ruckus du jour is the revelation that the blue-print for the redevelopment of Ground Zero conceived by the Polish-born architect Daniel "Loony Tune" Libeskind must be entirely reworked because its main feature, the proposed 1776-foot Freedom Tower, has been declared insufficiently terrorist-proof by the police. The mighty structure will have to be moved from its proposed placing and reinforced in unexplained ways. The redevelopment of the area will be put back one year and only finished in 2010.

The name-calling was started by Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, which, more than any other newspaper knows how to reflect the linguistic venality of its loyal readers. If Libeskind is not Mr Loony Tune in its editorial pages then he is simply referred to these days as Bozo. But leave it to the biggest of all New York's big mouths to offer his own insults. Donald Trump let rip at Libeskind, calling his plans a "monstrosity of garbled nonsense". Last week he began campaigning for the building of replicas of the old Twin Towers but just a little bit taller - just by one floor even - to symbolise victory over terrorism.

"The design for the Freedom Tower is an egghead design, designed by an egghead," he spat last Thursday. Not to be outdone, a representative of Libeskind offered his own response: "I suppose Trump wants to add an extra floor to make room for his name." Ouch and double-ouch.

Take me back to Florida now, where the driving is easy and every day is nice. But then again, maybe not. After all, where would be the fun in that?

Don't honk

If New York were in the tropics, things might be different. I knew I was a very long way from home during a recent trip to Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, when I read a list of helpful hints on local culture posted in my hotel room. It included admonitions not to walk in town in beachwear and to obey the seat-belts laws. Finally, it added this: "Don't honk if the driver in front stops for a conversation." That sure wouldn't work on the FDR.

Chain gang

If you are looking for aggravation in New York, then oil up your chain and take a bicycle ride on the last Thursday of any month. A night in jail could be yours for free. More specifically, begin your journey in Union Square and join all the other cyclists on a spontaneous spin through the streets of Manhattan, joyously flouting the traffic rules and discombobulating car drivers and innocent pedestrians alike.

You will be taking part in the latest monthly event called "Critical Mass", a rowdy two-wheel rally orchestrated by an amorphous group of pedal-power advocates. Critical Mass meets occur in cities around the world, but in New York they have been met by an increasingly repressive response from the police. Last month's ride ended with no fewer than 34 arrests. Enraged cyclophiles have vowed to come out in force next time - circle 27 May on your calendar. Expect many broken pumps, crumpled spokes and snapped tempers.

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