New York without its famously profane mouth would be like a lion without its mane. Of course, the city is not all that it is cracked up to be in the rudeness department. Call me a fibber or blind, but spontaneous displays of kindness and camaraderie among New Yorkers - even to foreigners - is quite the norm. But there is a special bluntness about discourse in this city. And it is part of New York's identity.
Ask somebody for the time and you may be rewarded, as I recently was, with a less than helpful, "Get a watch, buddy". And think twice before attempting to scold a New Yorker (er, excuse me ... sorry ... would you mind very much) for queue-barging, blocking your view, putting gum under the seat next to yours or whatever it may be. "Huh?" they will fire back. "What's it to you, anyway?"
You hear worse, of course, like when the visiting team scores a home run in a packed Yankee Stadium (F*** the Braves still echoes in my head) or when one New York driver blocks the path of another trying to turn left against the traffic as I witnessed this week on Park Avenue. A flawlessly coiffed woman leaned out from her polished Lexus limousine and screamed: "Get out of the way, you f***ing moron!"
Tourists anxious for a flavour of ruffian New York traditionally have needed to do nothing more than travel around it. A short trip in the hands of a New York cabby might do it. Trying to fathom the bus routes and asking help from a driver is usually good. For a sense of the sheer mania of Manhattan nothing beats the subway at rush hour - especially the No 6 line.
The city's wise fathers, however, have decided that this should not be your experience and have instituted variously dotty programmes designed to make the people you meet "nicer" - as in have-a-nice-day nice. The first to be victimised were the taxi drivers. Admittedly the city was spurred to act by a rising tide of complaints about abusive and recalcitrant chauffeurs, like the one who dumped a woman rider midway across the Queensboro Bridge after she insisted on her right to be taken across the East River.
To qualify for a licence now the cabbies must be familiar with a city- penned catalogue of 50 helpful and courteous phrases. These tips in verbal etiquette include: "I'm sorry you don't understand. I will try to speak more clearly"; "Please let me take your bags, sir (madam)"; "Thank you for hailing me, sir (madam)"; and "Madam (sir), is there any particular route you would like today?" The drivers, of course, realise that reciting the phrases would prompt most riders to consider them psychotic and run for safety.
Now it is the bus drivers who are in finishing school. There are horror stories here too. A favourite tells of a driver on the uptown second avenue route who recently took umbrage after a woman rider allegedly insulted him. He simply parked the bus at 82nd street and stalked off, leaving the passengers inside. Mayhem ensued as riders alternately yelled at the woman and pleaded with the driver to resume his seat. Finally, the next bus came along and rescued the disgruntled passengers.
Every driver is now being ordered to attend classes on keeping peace while at the wheel. At a cost of millions of dollars, the transport authority will dispense such nuggets as: "do not swear or call names"; "avoid sarcasm"; and "never shout at or strike a customer". Among some tricky quiz questions we have: "Elderly customers appreciate it when you drive like you are in a hurry, true or false?" To get all New York's drivers through the course will take two to three years.
But wait, what about the users? Disputes are rarely one-sided, but no one would suggest trying to brainwash every New Yorker in the art of nice. Would they? Yup, they would. This week, I found myself part of an experiment in mind-set modification on the infamous No 6 subway line at Grand Central Station. In a programme dubbed "Step Aside, Speed Your Ride", the transport authority is trying to stop New York commuters from boarding every train as if it were the last lifeboat off the Titanic. As each train draws in, conductors invite you to keep outside orange boxes painted on the platform where the train doors will open. The idea is simple: let everyone out and you - and the train - will get going more quickly.
"There are a few people who get kind of angry," one conductor admits. "But most people understand that we are just trying to improve service." In my few minutes observing this exercise, I am shocked to see that almost no one is daring to disobey. Only one man, looking like he is dressed for a day on Wall Street, flatly refuses to leave the box even after gentle physical encouragement.
The old New York - wondrous city of the gruff and ungracious, of the blunt and belligerent - may be disappearing. Hurry and visit before it is too late.Reuse content