In Defense of Indifference

Your Monday-morning controversy, served up hot:

Conversation in class the other day. The professor said she was waiting at a bus stop along with a few other people. One was a young lady, shivering in the late evening chill. A man who was also waiting pulled out his fleece zip-up and offered it to the shivering woman, for use til the bus came.

The professor raised an eyebrow and commented, “You must be from the south.”

The man answered, “Richmond.”

This naturally started a conversation about how rude and obnoxious everyone in the city is. One student proudly announced that she always says good morning to everyone, even though she usually gets nasty glares back.

That’s from me. It’s not a nasty glare, per se. It’s a mix of startled and annoyed. I mean, here I am, strolling down the street, completely absorbed in the task of teasing out a difficult idea for a blog post, when suddenly you rap on the window of my mental study with your chirpy little “Good morning!” and a grin like you’ve just done the world’s greatest good deed of the day. Pardon me for not agreeing.

We’re not rude in the city. We’re considerate. Our private lives are public. We can see into each other’s windows and hear each other fighting over who has to do the dishes.

In kind, our public lives are private. The woman putting on makeup on the train or doing her daughter’s hair is mentally in her bedroom. And we politely perpetuate that improbability by ignoring her, staying ensconced in the private little world of our thoughts, books, or music. The homeless guy snoring across three seats is in his living room. We all play along by not bothering him, even though there’s nowhere else to sit.

Well, maybe that’s not the only reason, but still. Bear with me.

When people get invasive, we get annoyed. Blaring music or talking on the phone as if you’re in your kitchen is not okay, because you’re in our kitchens as well. Saying good morning to me when I’m at my mental desk is invasive because I never opened the front door for you—not the little crack permitted to salesmen and missionaries, let alone full access to the interior.

At the same time, I will agree, this purposeful indifference does engender callousness. After all, what goes on in someone else’s house is none of my business.  The actual stimulus for this post was finding an old woman nodding off halfway up a flight of subway stairs while people dashed up and down around her.

It’s not lack of caring, I thought, as I paused on the step underneath, ready to catch her if she tipped over. It’s just that we first have to look out our windows. Notice something’s wrong. Ascertain whether and how we can help. And then, hardest of all, grind down on the inertia that carries us down the sidewalk at a brisk walking pace and stop, turn, and hold our hand to a perfect stranger, who may or may not be interested. Oh, and do it all before we’ve zipped past.

I don’t think New Yorkers are callous. I think we’re just not the cognitive sprinters we’d have to be to dash through all that thought at the necessary speed. I don’t think anyone is, even that guy from Richmond.

 

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