My apartment building caught fire yesterday.
Which is a helluva way to start a morning. I’m fine and, by virtue of being in the back on the sixth floor, my unit was somehow untouched.
But it did mean I was outside on the New York sidewalk at 5:30 in the morning watching firemen fight a fire from the pizza place I live over under control.
Then it started to rain. A cold, early morning rain. The sort that makes you wish you’d grabbed another jacket, never mind the smoke.
Just when we were wondering how long we’d have to stand in the rain waiting for news, a woman from the YM-YWHA a few doors down told us all we could wait inside there, warm up, use their bathrooms, and drink their water. Even though most of us weren’t members. The firefighters and police said they’d keep those inside updated.
Thus, with some of Maslow’s hierarchy taken care of, we continued to wait. But what I really wanted was some coffee.
In walked two people carrying boxes of donuts and coffee. They brought fiber bars and bananas. They brought cellphone chargers. They’d gotten them for us. They weren’t affiliated with the Y, not did they know any of us. They were just, as they said, doing what any good neighbors would do. They stayed and talked with us too, just mingling and hanging out.
The morning wore on. News broke that several units were inhospitable. The Red Cross came through with blankets and to help get people to temporary housing. The director of the Y and the leader of the synagogue next door stopped by to let us know that if we needed anything, they would help; if anyone needed clothing, housing, or food, they would reach out to their community to be taken care of.
There are reasons I believe that humanity, deep down, always wants to do good. And New York is a place that reaffirms it. During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, people with generators sat outside their buildings with power strips so people could charge their phones. People showed up to work at a pizza place and a supermarket so locals could buy food and supplies. Food carts offered free food. My friends and I were waved down by a worker from a ramen joint to be given free food (I still go to that place to this day).
I’ve seen strangers comfort sobbing people on the subway, I’ve seen an old woman yell at a cabby who ignored a pedestrian crossing sign and almost hit a guy. Half-a-dozen friends of mine showed up, when asked last minute, to help me and my brother move out of our unit a day early.
This is why I don’t believe those stories, those movies and books and tv shows, that declare all of humanity to be depraved and hurtful monsters. It’s why I don’t believe critics who call superheroes unrealistic. Because when something awful happens, when someone evil crops up, there are always those who step up, who protect, who help. For every Awful in this world, there are a dozen heroes.
It’s one of the reasons I love New York. It’s a city that doesn’t give a damn about who you are, but it will always have your back when things go wrong.
Or, as Fred Rogers put it:
There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.