The Editor reminds everybody to be nice and asks if you have a minute to notice the author’s name.
New York City is littered with groups with causes, especially since the weather is improving. To paraphrase a pastor that I once knew, you can always tell a good cause if they need money. If you see two people with clipboards twenty paces apart, you better pick up your step or cross the street.
The sidewalk solicitors have an arsenal of banal pick-up lines: “Are you against war?”; “Are you for a women’s health?”; “Do you care about the environment?” Well, peace is preferable to war; everyone likes health (but it is a commodity?); and even the most sharply fanged climate denialist cares about the environment. But as none of these questions demands an answer, it is easy to turn a shoulder and carry on with one’s day.
One opening salvo that I’m hearing more often is: “Are you a nice person?”
Ah, now it’s personal. Most people are going to think to themselves, “I am a nice person” and the hook will be in their mouth and they will be reeled in.
Well, it’s not nice not to respond when someone it talking to you, and I’ll say, “No.” This will either have my assailant drop their shoulders and let me pass, or to laugh, and try to convince me that deep down, I really am a nice person.
This is what one fellow tried yesterday. He was energetic and well dressed (which is pretty rare for a street activist). He wore a suit, one of those slim stylish ones. His only sartorial faux pas was that his belt was a little long and the loose end flapped when he raised his arms to make a point. I can imagine the training where a roomful of bright-eyed recruits were taught how to stand on their toes and raise their arms to make a point about the white rhinos.
I was listening closely for words like “climate change” and “sustainability” in his patter, but he was interested in the animals. He asked me if I liked animals—one of those questions that a shy first-grader might ask the kid next to him.
And I said, “Not at the expense of humans.” After doubling over in laughter, he agreed with me, “Oh, no, not at the expense of humans.”
I liked him. He had a pleasant, mobile face, and he was trying awfully hard. I could see how he could get pedestrians to hand over their credit card on the street to support his cause. I have a little rule borne from experience: I don’t open up my purse on the street. I may be more lenient with my rule if someone comes through the subway with a cheery Spanish song played on a beautiful guitar, or gives me a heartfelt speech about the abysmal treatment of honest, hardworking, and still-patriotic veterans at the hands of the VA.
So, he tried, and told me about the species that have vanished in the last year. He talked to me about the bees, and I said I knew about the bees. The bees are a problem, but I don’t see how giving my credit card number to a complete stranger will inspire the bees not to die.
But it was the “nice person” that got to me. I gave up being nice when I saw it was futile. Being nice didn’t get me more or better friends. Being nice just brought more people into my life who were willing to take advantage of me. Being nice didn’t improve the quality of my life. Being nice did nothing for me spiritually. That said, I strive to be merciful, gracious, grateful, humble, and helpful—which I can do without being nice.
The trap is to think that if you’re not nice, then you have to be mean. If the street beggar asked me, “Are you a mean person?” my answer would have been, “No.”
I wouldn’t have given the exchange any thought except that I ran into colleagues of Mr. Are-You-Nice this afternoon. There was a cluster of them, and I thought I dodged them all, but I didn’t. There was a young man at the edge of the group that could have been an office worker waiting to meet his friend after work. He tried to interest me in his cause, and as I was passing him at a fast clip, I told him that I ran into his friends yesterday further downtown.
He yelled after me, “Were they nice?”