The Kindness of Strangers



This is the second installation in our new essay series. Last time we heard from writer Judy McGuire about being forced out of a rent-stabilized apartment in Williamsburg by developers. This time Eliza Hecht, whose byline you may have seen on the Modern Love column in The New York Times recently, reflects on crying in public. To submit essay pitches, email us.

I live in Crown Heights, which I chose partly because of the convenient trains–I can catch both the 2/3, to go up the west side of Manhattan, or the 4/5, to go up the east, at Franklin Ave.

Not that long ago, I was taking the train home from school in the West Village. I was sitting, but strangers were standing crowded around me, commuting back to their lives at home. As the train rocked its way back to Brooklyn, I was listening to This American Life. It was an episode I had heard before, one that concluded with several girls in juvenile hall singing to their mothers.

“Mama. I’m sorry,” the girls sang. “I’m sorry. Mama, I’m sorry.”

This particular episode is one of those stories that doesn’t even pretend not to be emotionally manipulative. These girls, in a home for committing crimes, were apologizing to their mothers for what they did. In song.

I have always cried easily. My emotions live close up under my skin, and I’m not good at holding them in. All the girls are crying, Ira Glass tells us. Their moms are crying. And as I listened to this episode, this blatant, unmasked tearjearker of an episode, I started to cry, too. I tried to cry silently, wiping my tears away with subtle hand movements. Soon, I felt a touch on my shoulder.

A Latino man stood in front of me, holding out a paper towel. He gestured to me, indicating that I should take it. I smiled, mouthed the words “thank you,” and accepted.

I wiped the tears from my eyes and blew my nose, but I couldn’t stop crying. A minute later, I felt another touch on my arm. When I looked up, a young blonde woman was looking at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked, under her breath.

“I am,” I said, embarrassed. “Thank you so much.”

New York is a city where people poop in public, so it makes sense that we find ourselves crying in public, too. We’re always in close quarters with strangers: they brush our elbows on the street, our thighs touch when we’re sitting next to each other on the subway. Even so, it’s easy to feel alone. There are so many people that we are constantly floating through a sea of strangers, glancing at each other, but never really connecting.

I’ve been single for nearly four years. I live alone, in a studio apartment, with my dog. I love my apartment – it has the original hardwood floors, and an exposed brick wall. I really love my dog. I’ve learned to enjoy being alone most of the time. But still, there are nights when I come in off my fire escape, after smoking my last cigarette of the evening, and wish I had someone.

I feel an emptiness inside of me that I don’t know if I will ever fill. I think that maybe I should get another dog, that a dog would fix it, but I know that’s not true. I wish someone would hold me. Just rub my back, like my mom used to do when I couldn’t sleep. Fingers lightly scratching.

I don’t have that company, for now. Maybe I never will. But I can get pleasure out of the community I do have. New York is my community. I’m in a city of people like me: cranky, demanding, even rude, at times. In New York, I can be short with people. I can talk back to the lady on the subway when she jostles me and doesn’t apologize. I’m also surrounded by people who are wildly different from me, in so many ways, from the countries they were born in to their unusual allergies.

There’s a reason we look at each other and say “only in New York.” It’s an acknowledgement that we’re all in this together, that we’ve all seen the man with the cat on his head on Broadway – this crazy city is something we share, and love, and it knits us all together in a way nowhere else can.

In New York, the city where old ladies yell at you in line at the fish counter, where people say a pointed “excuse me” when you accidentally brush them with your bag, I’ve learned that strangers still care. And I try to pay it forward.

Now, when I see someone sitting on the stoop of a brownstone, looking sad, I always stop.

“You okay?” I ask.

Usually they look up, and nod.

“Yeah, thanks,” they say.

“Okay,” I say. “Good. Just checking.”

2 Responses

  1. Marie -

    I think this article is very well written, and from the heart. I cried on the train today (although not for the same reason as you 🙂 but no one mentioned it; they just stared.

    Any time I see anyone cry, I always ask if they’re ok. Usually, they say they are.

    Irrelevant, but I also live in Brooklyn, am alone, and have two dogs I absolutely love.

    Keep writing!

  2. Alison -


    Once, when I was coming home late from the bar, I saw a girl near my apartment so upset about something she was bawling as she walked. I thought she broke up with her boyfriend so I asked if she was ok and if she needed a hug. We hugged bear-hug style and she told me that she had just gotten mugged, they took everything, and she didn't really know where she was because she lived in Flatbush. I gave her all the money in my wallet ($17) and pointed her toward a car service. I hope she got home OK.


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