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New York's Warm, Fuzzy Side



In my first week in Manhattan, three serial killers were arrested. It's the kind of news you don't know how to take--is it reassuring that these people were apprehended or terrifying that they were out there to begin with? The New York Times took the former attitude, dutifully reporting Mayor Rudy Giuliani's boats about the crack police work of the NYPD. Once crucial detail especially worked to Giuliani's advantage: John J. Royster, the man who confessed to a brutal beating in Central Park and a murder on Park Avenue, was caught because he was fingerprinted during an arrest three months ago--for turnstile-hopping. That kind of "quality-of-life" crime has been the target of the mayor's law-enforcements strategy; here, it seemed, was living proof that stopping the small crimes really does have an effect on the larger ones.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of what makes up the quality-of-life problem here is beyond the reach of the law. As a native Angeleno, I'm used to a certain vapid goodwill between people in public places. Just because there are so few places where people are forced to meet strangers--nearly everyone lives in a tract house and drives a car, or seems to--L.A.'s public spaces are voluntary, even happy ones: the beach, the amusement park, above all the mall. Or maybe it's just the climate--it's easier to be mellow under bright, clear, 80-degree skies than in the concrete swamp that is Manhattan in the summer.

Here, on the other hand, it often seems that all eight million of your fellow citizens are in your face, all the time. I thought Cambridge's streets were chaotic until I realized that, in Harvard Square, the drivers (grudgingly) stop when you run across the street; on Third Avenue, where I walk to work each morning, it's a game of chicken at every corner, as crowds of business executives edge out into traffic and frenzied cabbies bear down on them, determined not to miss the light. Coming from a place where 30-minute, five-mile drives are common-place, I'm continually surprised to see how people will fight tooth and nail over a few inches of street, or run like maniacs to make the 5:58 train instead of the 6:05. When you have so many people in such a small space, your sense of proportion can get warped.

That's one side of Manhattan's quality of life, and until you can arrest people for hostility, it's not going to change. But there's also a flip side, and I got to see it this week, in Bryant Park. This two-block patch of green is the backyard of the New York Public Library, sitting serenely at one of the most famous and bloodthirsty intersections in the world, 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. Every Monday night in the summer, they show a movie on a giant outdoor screen; the show begins at sundown, about 8:45, and starting at 5 p.m. people are filing in, staking out their turf. Here, as on the subway, as on the sidewalks, no one is going to give you an inch without a fight; all around us, people were plopping down huge blankets in tiny plots of ground, daring you not to move over. It didn't seem like a promising atmosphere for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," surely one of the sappiest films ever to come from that master of sap, Frank Capra.

To be sure, when Jimmy Stewart flickered across the screen, there was no great transformation in the crowd; derisive comments and the occasional snicker could still be heard from time to time. When Jimmy went on a rampage, punching out the members of the press who had misrepresented his wholesome comments, a general disbelief could be felt in the air; and in the dramatic pause after he had been abused to his face by those same cynical reporters, when his whole face was trembling with anger and disillusionment, the guy behind us could be heard murmuring, in perfect Jimmy tones, "Aw, gee..."

But along with this undertone was a clear desire to meet Capra halfway, to be taken in by Senator Smith's crazy idealism. Just like an audience seeing the movie in 1939, this one booed the corrupt party boss, sighed when Jean Arthur confessed her love and cheered when they hypocritical Claude Rains broke down and admitted how right Jimmy had been all along. It wasn't a total transformation; everyone knew that, when the lights went out, they would be walking back to an empty subway in the dark, and the defensive glower would have to return.

But when the move did end, in a peal of applause, something truly amazing happened, for New York: no one got up and started to run for the exit. Just about everyone sat still for the credits, and even for the closing announcements, as though they didn't care about beating the rush. No doubt Frank Capra would have preferred it if everyone had joined in a chorus of "Auld Lang Syne"--but, for this temporary New Yorker, it was a not unimportant thing, a fleeting improvement in the city's ailing quality of life.

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