This morning, a couple of days after a terrorist attack in NYC, I went into Manhattan. I bought some gum and Tylenol from a street vendor. The man behind the counter appeared particularly glum.
“How are you doing?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “I keep going,” he answered.
I said something, I don’t remember what, something about the state of the world and what a hard week it’s been for our city, how it’s always a hard week for some city, and he said to me, “I just don’t understand why people in power are trying to divide us. I don’t understand why they want people to look at me the way people are looking at me.”
Now, I have no idea where this man originally hails from, but he certainly had what many may interpret as “Middle Eastern“ or “Muslim” features, whatever that really means (and the fact that the perpetrator of the attacks was from Uzbekistan and not the Middle East doesn’t seem to matter to many...). I can’t imagine the prejudice this man has experienced here in the US and wouldn’t ever pretend to. Who knows if I said the right thing or not, but I told him, “We love you and we are here for you.”
He responded to me, “We all come from Adam and Eve. We’re all one. Why are they dividing us? Why respond to hate with hate?” Then, as he wiped away tears, he said, “Those in power... They have money, their families are safe and cared for. Why do they want to divide us?”
We held hands across the counter and he said, with his other hand on his heart, “Peace and love,” to which I responded, “Peace and love to you.”
I tell this story not to pretend there are easy answers to the problems in our world or to fall into sentimentality, but rather to say this: These interactions, and these connections, and these people, are what make up New York City. Horrific things happen, but never let those outside of New York tell you what defines it. There has been a history in our political discourse of using “New York values” to connote some nebulous, negative aspect of America, and a common stereotype of New Yorkers as rude or unkind still pervades notions of our city.
But that portrayal could not be more untrue. New York City is full of peace and love and support. Many other places have this quality, too, of course, but what makes New York so darn special is that the people supporting one another here are “different” in the ways we have been told to categorize ourselves as different from one another. So to our leaders I plead: Stop trying to divide us, and don’t tell us what our city is or isn't or should or shouldn't do. We are New York Frickin’ City, and we will always hold hands in the face of division.