Getting by with a little help from strangers

By Victoria Grantham | Victoria Grantham Life DowntownWe helped our friends move recently from a suburban community in New Jersey to a more rural area in New York. (By “we” I mean I paid for the pizza lunch and lounged in the pool with the kids while my husband Jay and his best friend sweated through their clothes lifting a piano, several dressers, and multiple couches.)

Our friends told us about the amazingly warm and personal reception they received when they schlepped the first portion of their stuff to their new house the previous weekend. One neighbor brought a delicious homemade pie, while another delivered a heartfelt handwritten note expressing excitement and offering assistance.

What? I felt like I’d been transported into the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” or something. I thought about what it might be like if/when we move from one apartment to another. I couldn’t really envision the welcome wagon rolling out for us. Come to think of it, I’ve never stopped to extend a formal pie and card-filled howdy to a new neighbor myself, so it’s karma, perhaps. But mainly it’s because we live in buildings with hundreds of other people and people come and go all the time. Making a big deal of every new occupant would be a fulltime job.

The realization though caused me to reflect on what New York City dwellers actually do for each other. There are a lot of small town expressions of love and kindness occurring in this big city of ours every day. Here are some I’ve experienced:

I encountered an angel who rescued us from the rain and ourselves. 

One morning after the usual circus of barely controlled chaos, I finally got the three of us (me, plus my then one- and four-year-olds) out of the apartment and onto the street — in a torrential downpour. I had grabbed an umbrella, but it was the size of a Frisbee and, needless to say, insufficient. I was anxious as I was about to be late for a meeting in Midtown and both kids were crying. Trudging ahead in the downpour I must’ve looked bleak — like someone seriously considering quitting (which I was) — because a small woman with a jumbo family-sized umbrella came up on my side and said, “I just dropped my kids off. I’ll take you wherever you’re going.” She committed to us without knowing our destination, or what she was getting herself into, but she made her unconditional offer nonetheless and I accepted. She walked the five blocks with us to the boys’ daycare. When we arrived we hugged. I looked down to unlock the gate and by the time I looked back up she’d disappeared.

I’ve been helped by strangers on the subway more times than I can count.

Allow me to complain for a moment before I launch into my moment of gratitude: Why oh why don’t we have a subway system that uniformly accommodates wheelchairs, strollers, etc.? I couldn’t even begin to speculate what possible acceptable answer there is, but at least we help each other cope with it. When I used to take the kids by subway to school in FiDi we’d get out at Rector — a stop without elevators. On an almost daily basis someone would see me with the stroller, two kids, three lunches, backpacks, etc. facing down the dozens of stairs and take mercy on me. People of all sorts have stopped to help me lug my kids and our stuff up those stairs — men in business suits rushing to meetings, older women, non-English speaking tourists, teenagers. I never once had to ask. Seeing how many people are willing to step up and help is truly unbelievable and inspiring.

A cop stopped traffic when my kid had a meltdown mid-street crossing. 

All parents have experienced the dreaded toddler tantrum, but there’s a particularly unnerving urban version that involves the strong-willed toddler thrusting his body onto the asphalt while traversing the street. I have experienced this once — right as the light was changing. Thankfully, a tuned in cop was standing nearby and intervened. He stopped traffic and helped me haul my mini menace to the curb. It was a major relief and I’m eternally grateful.

The always upbeat "Banana Man" fruit vendor on W. Broadway.

The always upbeat “Banana Man” fruit vendor on W. Broadway.

The Banana Man showers us with love by singing potassium’s praises.

On W. Broadway just off of Park Pl., there’s a fruit vendor known neighborhood-wide for his upbeat attitude. He’s the diametric opposite of the famed Soup Nazi from “Seinfeld.” He sings his trademark tune, “banana, banana, potassium, potassium” without fail and often accompanies it with a jig. My kids are crazy about him and they do a version of his routine at home. His spirit and unique zeal reminds me of Roberto Benigni, the guy who created “Life is Beautiful” and accepted his Academy Award in the most memorable and enthusiastic way possible — by scaling chairs and applauding the audience. I feel so fortunate to have someone teaching my kids about the power of a positive attitude in such a vivid way on a daily basis.

It may not be Mayberry, and the welcome wagons don’t take a conventional shape and arrive at the same time, but we have heart.

Victoria Grantham, a writer and communications professional, is raising her family in Tribeca.

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