Friday, October 8, 2010

Delusions of Quaintness

Over at Vanishing New York, I've written now and then about new New Yorkers' inscrutable sense of safety. How they save seats with laptops while they go to the restroom and leave their apartment doors unlocked. This week, Sloane Crosley published an essay in the Times about this trend and bravely identifies herself as one of the trusting ones.

I've been reading and rereading this essay because I want to understand, and I don't know firsthand the people who feel so safe that they leave their apartment keys in unlocked mailboxes and sleep on the train with their purses wide open. Sloane boils this naivete down to two related reasons:

1. She says, "most New Yorkers, myself included, love pretending we live in a very big small town" and "We love our delusion of quaintness."

2. This wish to live in a quaint small town makes some people over-trust the everyday kindness of strangers. She warns, "we’re confusing humanity with safety."

I find it gratifying that she links two of my favorite pet peeves--the false illusion of safety with the suburbanization of New York. It's a combined longing that creates Little Nantuckets in Brooklyn and gives birth to apartment complexes that mimic suburban life. A decade ago, this combination was still embryonic, and then a whole generation came to the city without actually wanting to be "city people." Wrote the Observer in 2007, "For reasons both deep and ineffable, these young transplants just can’t help bringing suburbia with them."

I'm still trying to understand the "deep and ineffable" reasons why anyone would move to the city when they prefer the suburbs. But, for what it's worth, here's my latest example of what Crosley calls a smug "'the world is my safe deposit box' mentality:

Recently, I'm walking past a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue when I see, at their sidewalk cafe, that someone has abandoned a table with untouched appetizers and a glass of wine on it. They've left their belongings, too, a backpack and a laptop bag. They've even left their dog, unleashed, roaming among the empty tables. No one else is sitting at the cafe.

It's a strange still life. People walking by turn to look. They stop, stare, and move on. I imagine they are thinking what I am thinking: What happened here?

My first thought is that there must have been an emergency, something very disorienting. Why else would people flee without their laptop, bags, and dog? The table is closest to the exit, not penned in, and the bags are left vulnerable to anyone who might want to take them. The dog, too, seems completely forgotten as it wanders back and forth from one end of the cafe to the other.

Then, of course, several minutes later, they come out. A pair of blondes, braying with laughter through bleached teeth, giant sunglasses glinting in the late afternoon light. They only went inside to avail themselves of the bar. Ice tinkles in the fresh cocktails they hold in their hands as they return to their table. The waiter follows after them, bowing slightly, and takes their orders.

So does the fact that no one stole the dog or the bags provide evidence that New York really has become a quaint small town?

Crosley asks, "Have we gone too far in our quest for the quaint?" Yes. But, it can't last. If you play Russian Roulette long enough and keep on dodging the bullet, you can fall into the fantasy that there is no bullet in the cylinder. But keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, you'll find out the hard way.

Further reading:
Stolen Laptop
Steal This Laptop
Unlocked Baby Strollers
Unstolen Bike


  1. This is a puzzling sentiment you're expressing, though it's not yours alone, of course. Puzzling because you're backing into a wistfulness about crime. Because you don't like blondes with white teeth, you're sort of wishing the city *you know*, the criminal city, could sort of take them down a peg. It's as though you think of crime as some kind of democratizing force of urban living. Nobody's safe, so maybe we all share something in common. It's worth thinking a little more carefully about why this trend makes you angry.

  2. Hi Grumbler - Amazing how people can leave items like this lying out, and not have them be robbed. There must be a lot of police around, driving out the ne'er do wells. A Parisian friend told me it's the same over there - the cops make sure the undesirables from the bainlieu who might rip off the tourists don't make it into the center.

    Sitll, I can't think that it's only a matter of time before the thieves descend and these people become easy pickings. If it's not happening already.


  3. I once worked with a new-to-the-city resident a few years back. She lived in some soulless UES hi-rise and longed for the 'Seinfeld' life. You know, never locking your front door so the wacky neighbors could burst in at any moment. It was all fun and games until someone walked off with whatever he or she could carry one Saturday afternoon when she was elsewhere in the building.

  4. Interesting! Not so long ago I found a high school book bag quite full of books on my stoop on my busy street. I brought it in and left a note on the door saying that I had the bag and please call me to retrieve it. A few minutes later, a nervous kid called me, and I brought the bag down to him. Amazingly enough, he assumed I was going to extort him for some kind of reward. He had left the bag there so he could run around with his friends for a while. I gave him a little lecture on the perils of life in the big city and sent him on his way.

  5. This bizarre safety bubble the youngsters seem to wander around in has perplexed me for a decade. The Russian Roulette analogy is right on. But attention suckers: crime is real. Some little twerp attempted a purse-snatching a month ago upon my wife and I in front of our door in cozy, quaint Sunnyside. Purse snatching! How '70s can you get! The good old days are coming back.

  6. Andrew, i like the way you phrase your comment. you're right, i and many people have this anger about people who behave without carefulness in the city. is it a wistfulness for crime? i don't want to get into the oversimplification that we wish for crime, as some believe, but i also don't want to deny that there is something to that. and it is worth examining.

    so, to the readers here, why do you think these behaviors make you angry?

    if i'm going to go really deep with it, i probably get angry with people who have lived with so much privilege, for so long, that they are out of touch with reality--and the realities of other people. and, on a personal level, with my reality, which for different reasons has required a certain vigilance.

    so part of it is envy of their blissful ignorance, but i also view them as socially irresponsible, because awareness, consciousness, is a kind of responsibility, and they have opted out of it.

  7. I have to agree that leaving belongings or animals unattended in New York City is a big mistake. In fact, it is a mistake anywhere. As a frequent visitor to NYC and a resident of a large urban area (Atlanta), I can honestly say that this would be a mistake ANYWHERE. I grew up in the boonies in Tennessee and to this day wouldn't leave anything unattended, even there. The reason people feel that they can do this in NYC is that the city gives off a very "community" feel, at least in my mind, that isn't available in many other places. I think the real issue here is the youth of those committing the errors. It is a symptom of the "dumbing down" of the country. Natural selection will get the worst offenders sooner or later. It is proven every day.

  8. Interesting, although I wouldn't equate "safety" with "suburbs." I admit I have done time in both small towns and suburbs and did not experience safety in either of these places (for example, a classmate's mother was murdered in her own front yard...we always locked our doors).

    I agree more with what you say about privilege and being out of touch with reality. This is what irks me when I see people essentially taking over a space like a sidewalk cafe as if it's their own living room. Eight million people live here here and have to share this limited space, but it seems some feel free to take more than others. By leaving their stuff all over the place, they're marking the territory as their own. Why not just pee around the table to make sure no one else sits there?

    I think it comes down to plain thoughtlessness or, rather, selfishness.

  9. true, and safe for whom? the suburbs/small towns did not feel safe for me--and do not feel safe, and ARE not safe, for many people who don't live conventional lives or who do not "pass" as conventional, i.e., hetero, gender-normative, consumers of dominant culture, etc.

    New York, and other cities, are safer for such people.

    could the influx of suburban values make the city less safe for such people? this is a question i've been grappling with as gay bashings arise in the Village. but that's another post.

  10. This definitely has to do with privilege: if the loss of your laptop would be a major hit to your pocketbook, I doubt you'd leave it so vulnerable. Then again, leaving your laptop on a desk in any college library is much more dangerous, in terms of the likelihood of it being stolen, than if you left it on on a table in a cafe. I personally will leave my laptop on a table at a coffeeshop to go to the bathroom, but only after I've asked someone nearby, typically who also has a laptop out, to look after it. I find that New Yorkers are much more likely to try to stop a thief, or at least cause a ruckus than suburbanites.

    Ultimately what pisses me off about these types is that they are self-involved narcissists so completely oblivious to the world around them that they don't think twice about screaming at the top of their lungs at 3 am on a tuesday on a side street in the east village.

  11. i read a study once about how if you ask someone to watch your stuff, they will chase down a thief. if you don't ask, they won't bother at all.

    some sociologists did this on a beach somewhere with a radio. when they asked a neighboring sunbather to watch the radio, then sent a "thief" to steal it, the person entrusted with the responsibility went after him. which i think does speak to the privilege of "easy come, easy go." it also seems to be a delusion that people will take care of you, even if you don't go through the work of asking.

    so if you ask someone to watch it, they're likely to feel responsible and to act accordingly. but a lot of people don't do that. they just leave their stuff around without activating the social contract.

  12. "most New Yorkers, myself included, love pretending we live in a very big small town" and "We love our delusion of quaintness."

    I don't know anyone who shares this point of view. I guess I travel in a completely different circle than Sloane Crosley. I think it just boils down to having street smarts. If you're out in a crowd in any town, there's always someone in the room who's looking to rip you off. I think, as others have pointed out, that it's also a matter of your financial status. I wouldn't leave my laptop unguarded as I couldn't afford to buy a new one. And as far as leaving my apartment unlocked, I grew up in Peoria, Illinois and you wouldn't leave your house or apartment unlocked there much less in New York City. That essay really baffled me. I'm not looking for quaint, I just want to pass go, get my paycheck and have a drink or three.

  13. I think you hit the "anger" nail on the head with the complaint about privilege making people out of touch with reality.

    It's not like the world is any less dog-eat-dog than ever -- Wall Street robs millions more people than purse snatchers do -- it's just that the violence has been muffled.

    But some NYC-burbanites expect everyone else to be just like them, relatively well off and satisfied with the state of the city and world.

    I stepped out a busy train door the other day and was confronted by a guy a with an iced latte in one hand and an iPad in the other, spread out across the door like he was settling into a Starbucks armchair.

    It was his expectation that the rest of the world was just like his world, and that we should make room for his comfy little island of privilege, that pissed me off.

  14. I ashamed to admit that my first reaction upon reading this was "Damn, I wish *my* dog was that well trained." If I let my dog off a leash for one second, that would be the last I saw of him.

  15. I feel indifference rather than anger. I have had quite a few things stolen from me living here. I take partial responsibility for every instance, as I know even one innocent mistake I make can be crucial. I don't expect to get lucky, ever.

    So I could honestly care less if these privileged people leave their shit out for the world to see and steal. The inevitability of a thief making the bad choice to steal will increase with their own bad choices. They will either learn valuable lessons about how the world isn't like their parents' house, or just make several more small time crooks very happy. Their decision; not worth my thoughts.

    To the first commenter: this does not condone or fetishize criminal activity. It's just an eventuality everyone experiences, regardless of how conscientious they are. I completely support prosecution of any idiot who steals and gets caught. They should also be punished for their bad choices.

  16. Regarding leaving your laptop out, that's never a good idea. I work on laptops in cafes almost every day, and if I need to use the toilet I being it with me. I get some funny looks, but whatever. That $1000 hunk of plastic is my livelihood. I'm not entrusting it to a stranger who will cheerfully agree to look after it only to promptly forget about it.

  17. I'm from a Long Island suburb, with NYC born parents, and we never leave our doors unlocked, are skeptical of strangers, and always expect something could go down at any moment. It's a huge generalization to say "suburban people" are quaint and innocent.

  18. I once dated a columbia university student from Toronto who had a bicycle. I remember I complimented the bike or something and she told me that she saw it resting against a lamppost on the lower east side one day and just took it. And she just said it like it was a natural New York thing to do, like if it wasn't chained up then it was just perfectly fine to just take it and ride off on it. Interestingly, I noticed that she herself would not only chain the bike but remove one of the wheels whenever she parked it.

  19. I think about this blissfull ignorance quite a bit, though I prefer the word "willful". It's not only in New York. It's endemic and it's infectious. It's also incredible given the possible alternative effects of all the media we have thrown at us everyday. Maybe it's the cocoon instinct in the human psyche.

  20. Jeremiah,

    I know you said it was for another post, but with regard to a rise in gay-bashing, when you do write the post, please discuss, in the interest of "nuance" that it's not just upper middle class suburbanites who perpetrate such things.

    If fact, I'd be interested to see evidence that upper middle class suburbanites are involved in any material sense. Unless of course, leaving laptops out at cafes somehow creates the atmosphere for others to do such very un-New York things as linked above. I look forward to you trying to make such a connection. (P.S. I realize that if you can't blame said suburbanites somehow, you won't do a post, but I couldn't help it.)

  21. Envying those who feel comfortable leaving their personal items out to be stolen runs deep. I've had to ponder this for several minutes and it's quite curious, not a quality I am enjoying about myself. I expend a certain amount of energy feeling paranoid and vulnerable about not only my stuff, but my safety. It's part of my culture. My neighbor will not, under any circumstances, come to my house without triple locking her door even though from my apartment, we could easily hear if someone were to open her door, so there is zero chance someone could go in there without our knowing. Yet I understand her motivations. She couldn't relax without knowing her apartment was as invulnerable as possible, even for just a few minutes chatting.

    To see people who don't expend this same negative energy so persistently is something to envy. However, if their bags or dog was stolen, my emotions shift from envy to the superiority of "I told you so."

  22. i think many people are sheltered. & also have the means to replace the computers which can be stolen. if these things were that important to them they would be more careful. i am surprised seeing this in new york w/younger people. i did think they were street wise from the internet. i think americans in general are in la-la land. once i saw a woman put her chanel bag down to save her seat @an art auction. it was full of stuff & partly open, wallet sticking out etc. she went to find someone. the room was almost empty as it was early. any cleaning person could have swiped it. even i was tempted just looking @it. this is a gesture of "new money". she & her husband were overly dressed in tasteless pretentious clothes, bad dye jobs etc. swaggering around, air kissing. i think she felt real important & so so casual just throwing a $3000. bag down on a metal chair. this was @ christies auction house. while reading this blog, i am thinking that people are UN prepared for the world. & yes dumbing down as the world gets more dangerous. a perverse & twisted concept. also deep inside they do not have much self esteem. losing my laptop would be like losing my world. & yes i was more blase & disrespectful w/my material things when they were handed to me, when i was younger. then i had a sweat bullets to have anything. what ever i do have is part of my body. maybe these people will never have too sweat? well see.....


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