I'm Walkin' Here!

by Barry Drogin

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There are movie moments that stay in the collective memory of a culture. One such moment is from 1969's "Midnight Cowboy," in which Dustin Hoffman, as Ratso Rizzo, is crossing the street, almost gets hit by a taxi cab, and shouts, "I'm walkin' here!"

Perhaps less known is that this moment was real and unscripted, according to Hoffman. When the cab interrupted the shot, Hoffman wanted to say, "We're filming a movie here!" but decided to stay in character.

Although, ironically, Jon Voight was from New York and Dustin Hoffman was from California, Hoffman had already been living in New York City for about a decade when he played the role.

A similar instance of improvised tough-guy dialogue came from Robert De Niro in the 1976 "Taxi Driver," when screenwriter Paul Schrader told the actor to stand before a mirror and play with his gun like a cowboy. De Niro's "You talkin' to me?" scene has shadowed De Niro his entire career.

Anyone who moves to the five boroughs of NYC (including myself), learns that they must adopt a pace and a hustle just to survive on the street. This faux toughness reached an absurd extreme when, in 1984, the milquetoast (and racist) Bernhard Goetz shot four African-American teenagers who took him for an easy mark.

For most New Yorkers, whether native born or transplanted, the calculation on whether to use verbal protest (and maybe obscenity), whether to stand one's ground (not in the Florida sense, thank G-d) or back down, is a constant. Someone cuts you off, cuts the line, bumps into you, even just gives you a dirty look, do you let it go, go for a stare-down, or say something? This is a calculation, hopefully not influenced by how you happen to be feeling that day, and sometimes you speak up, sometimes you keep silent. If you never stick up for yourself, you will wander the city terrified, rationally or not, and eventually move out.

Of course, this doesn't mean that all (or most) New Yorkers are actually tough, but we sometimes have to act like we are.

From here I could easily launch into a nostalgic bemoaning of the loss of street attitude amongst many who come to live and walk in the city. Certainly, the generosity of city-dwellers, towards tourists, towards the homeless, towards immigrants, isn't given as much cultural recognition as our supposed toughness.

But I am writing this in 2019, when the fake New York toughness is on weekly display by a New Yorker who never had to engage in a real fight, who was known as a pansy, but who plays tough on the international stage: the President of the United States. And the cultural embrace, elevation, or at least dissemination of this particular kind of behavior is not only helping to widen the divide within the nation, but is serving to encourage, inflame, and even incite the real (or aspiring) bullies amongst us. Even in a place as anti-Trump as New York City, amongst people who would never even consider voting for him, the cultural meme that is at the heart of Trumpism has invaded our streets.

I guess a backlash can go either way. Some people can try to become even more compassionate and caring than their personality allows. And some turn their anger against Trump into accidental emulation.

Amongst so-called polite society, there is much bemoaning and decrying of this decidely unpresidential behavior. This, in turn, only leads to delight and bemuse Trump supporters. The genteel are called "snowflakes." The one characteristic which seemed to distinguish NYC from the rest of the country, a willingness to tolerate difference, is strained when a decidedly intolerant sub-population is encouraged to stand their ground, to openly mock, bully, and despise the general population. This manifests itself in the subways, on the buses, on the streets, and in other public spaces.

Most seriously and statistically provable, there has been a horrible uptick and continued increase in hate crimes both nationwide and in New York City itself. I originally didn't think I would take this train of thought that far, but I think it would be wrong to ignore it and not mention it.

At a time when mass rallies on gun control, immigrant rights, student debt, women's rights, LGBQT pride, environmentalism, and a host of other progressive causes have brought people back into the streets, this sub-current of arrogant cruelty is also present.

I'd call it NYC's rude minority.

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Last Updated: September 28, 2019