Normally, you couldn’t pay me to get within 5 blocks of Times Square on an average day. On New Year’s Eve, the no-go zone stretches from Union Square to Columbus Circle. Normally, it’s bitterly cold, there are no bathrooms, you can’t bring anything with you, and you are packed in to the point where, if you wish to reel both your feet up off the pavement, you would not fall down. You would just hang there, sandwiched between 6 or 7 other people, who would not notice that you have reeled in both your feet. If 50 people standing together all reeled in their feet at once, perhaps a slight dimple would appear from an aerial view.
Then you watch a big ball drop while everyone counts. After that, even if you want to go home, you can’t. Instead, you get to watch Mariah Carey screw up, and drunk people kissing.
But this is not a normal year, and these are not normal times. For starters, the temperature was a balmy 50 degrees. And this year, I have become an activist.
I don’t do this kind of thing lightly. In fact, in my youth I would rather have been almost anywhere than linking arms with fellow students while chanting “the people, united, will never be defeated!” My idea of civil unrest was turning homework in late. Now, however, I’m out there.
What’s the most important thing I can do? I thought to myself. One news story in particular made my blood boil. A young woman was harassed in the subway by thugs who tried to grab her headscarf. The blood-boiling part came when she said that, on the number 6 train, her fellow New Yorkers looked away.
People. This is New York! Here’s the list of things you can look away from
- Homeless people
- Crazy Ranters
- Noisy teenagers
- Naked cowboys
- Tourists eating pizza with a fork
Here is the list of things you can’t look away from:
- People who need your help.
It’s an easy list to remember. And you failed.
This is the year I decided to do something about it. I decided to leverage my superpower as a middle-aged white woman to hand out educational flyers to people on New Year’s Eve. There was just one problem: my friends did not think this was a good idea.
The first response I got was “that sounds dangerous”. This is patently untrue. For starters, there are police every 5 feet all over New York on New Year’s Eve. Secondly, I went early in the evening, before anyone had time to get too drunk. And last, but most importantly, I am a middle-aged white woman. I’m practically invisible! No one is going to mess with me.
The hub wanted to go too, but he would only have slowed me down. I needed to leverage my superpower without worrying that he was going to be thrown to the ground and cuffed before you could say “is that middle-aged white woman with that Dominican?” So, no. As a sop to the worried, I did sport a lovely orange coach’s whistle that I could have deployed to fend off an attacker, but it was not needed. As predicted, no one messed with me.
First stop was Penn Station. I honed my technique and handed out a few flyers in the white-tiled maze under the LIRR’s central plaza. When I got tired of the odor of “Auntie Anne’s Pretzels”, I head back uptown to Columbus Circle. This was where I hit the jackpot.
I started out on the south side, moving clockwise around the circle as I was chased off by one bemused police officer after another. “Ma’am, may I ask what you are doing? Oh, an educational flyer? I’m sorry, but I’ll have to ask you not to.” Each time, I moved 20 feet down until the next policeman politely shooed me away.
Once I cross the street to the Central Park side, I hit pay dirt. No one shooed me away, and by that time, I was a seasoned pro at leafleteering.
Here’s what I learned:
Smile. I’m not exactly perky by nature, but I smiled big and spoke clearly as I said “Happy New Year!”
Act like you’re handing out free samples at Costco. I appended “here you go!” in a happy voice to my spiel, and believe it or not, it worked.
Be respectful. Call people “Miss” and “Sir” even if they look like complete assholes.
Make it easier to take the flyer than to leave it. Using my right hand, I’d snatch the top flyer from the stack on my left, wave it deftly in the air with a flourish, and then hand it firmly into their free hand. (note: make sure your mark does have a free hand).
Keep moving. Walk towards oncoming foot traffic for best effect. To my surprise, the long line of people waiting to get south of the barricades into Times Square turned out to be sitting ducks….I scooted down the line and handed one to almost every other person before they knew what hit them.
Here are the types of people you’ll meet:
British tourists. They will take a flyer, say “thank you!” and sound like they mean it.
Male/female couples where the guy is burly and the woman is in heels: hand it to the guy. He doesn’t want to look mean or stupid in front of his date, so he will take it as the easiest course of action.
Groups of Asian women: usually, one of them will take a flyer without too much fuss.
Middle-aged white women like me. We won’t take a flyer no matter what you do.
Well dressed gay men. They won’t either, and they will smirk slightly as they don’t take it.
Party girls from New Jersey. They have perfected the passive-aggressive technique of smiling, squeaking “Thank you!” while leaving their hands firmly at their side and not actually doing anything. I pity their boyfriends.
Who knows if it will help? I’m also signed up for a de-escalation workshop in Brooklyn, so I’ll see what I can learn. I promised to modify the flyer for my next session. I’ve got at least 4 years to practice my technique.