How One Kind, Cigar-Smoking Stranger Offset All the Rude Encounters I've Had Lately

I typically give people the benefit of the doubt, but after a string of run-ins with jerks, optimism had become exhausting.

I don't think I've ever lost my faith in humanity. Even though I watch the news through my fingers like it's a horror movie and I've been dealt my fair share of personal tribulations, I maintain a relatively positive outlook. I guess you could say I'm a realist, or perhaps a cynical optimist; I'm acutely aware of the bad in people, but I also tend to conclude that everything is going to be OK. Not rainbows-and-puppies amazing — but OK. I keep my expectations fair and, consequently, I keep my disappointment manageable.

When I was younger, I subscribed to the generalization that people — all of 'em — were inherently good. I don't believe that anymore, but I don't need to in order to stop myself from sinking into a steaming sump of misanthropy. I think there are a lot of (mostly) good people (nobody's perfect), and a lot of (mostly) bad people (nobody's perfectly evil). I'll even admit that there may be more of the latter than the former. But I consider myself one of the good guys, and I know a lot of other good guys, and even if we're not winning, so to speak, just the fact that we exist and keep trying to be not-terrible on both a big and small scale prevents me from losing hope and subscribing to the opposite generalization that all people are inherently bad.

I live in a city whose people and their virtue have been generalized about perhaps more than any other: New York. I remember, while growing up just a few dozen miles away in New Jersey, hearing (both in conversation and on TV) unflattering blanket characterizations of New Yorkers: rude, rushed, brash, menacing, greedy, sinful. Having been born in Manhattan to two born-and-raised New Yorker parents who checked off none of those boxes, I was confused about why people would think that. Every time we visited my grandmothers in Queens and Brooklyn, everyone we interacted with was really nice. Well, except Grandma Ethel — she was, in fact, menacing.

Then, after 9/11 — just a few months after I'd moved "back" to Manhattan — our reputation soared as we came together as an inviolable community. Outsiders who had previously written off New Yorkers as disagreeable suddenly saw eight million people worthy of sympathy, respect and even admiration.

That didn't last, of course. For no apparent reason other than time marching on, New Yorkers have slinked back into the same old set of perceptions. Travel + Leisure has named New York the rudest or unfriendliest city in the US multiple times so far this century, including just last year. And, yes, New York has more assholes than any other American city, but that's just because we have the most people. Our asshole-to-mensch ratio is probably the same as other cities'.

But even I — defender of prejudged New Yorkers and halfhearted apologist for the human race — occasionally feel like the assholes aren't just winning, they're testing my optimism.

Last weekend, my boyfriend, D (who has 15 other letters in his name and nearly as many reasons for wanting to protect his privacy on the internet) and I decided to bike and walk from Brooklyn into Manhattan to buy some paint at his preferred store. D is an avid cyclist, and even though it's been years since I've been on a bike, that has recently inspired me to do a few 24-hour rentals of Citi Bikes to see if I might want to invest in a year-long membership in the city's bike-share program.

We decided to bike from our apartment to the Williamsburg Bridge, walk the bridge, and get back on bikes on the other side. The Manhattan half of the bridge puts the narrow pedestrian path smack up against the bike lanes. Not long after we reached this stretch, we spotted two guys on bikes coming toward us, one of whom was riding on the pedestrian path.

About 20 feet directly in front of us, the guy riding on the path shouted "Caw! Caw!" as if he was challenging us to a game of chicken (even though that's the sound crows make, dumbass). D and I didn't really have anywhere to move out of the way to; not only would jumping into the bike lane put us and anyone biking up behind us at risk of an accident, the other guy was riding right on the other side of the line that separates the pedestrian path and bike lanes, so we'd most likely get hit by him in an effort to not get hit by his friend.

Not sure what to do, I just lifted my left hand and pointed to the bike lane, signaling a suggestion that the guy riding in the pedestrian path should, you know, ride in the bike lane and not maim us.

His friend responded by shouting, "Shut the fuck up!" (I hadn't said anything.) And at the last second, Pedestrian Path Floyd swerved into the bike lane and on to dicktory.

"Can we not walk over this bridge without an asshole encounter?" I complained to D.

The whole reason we'd decided to take the Citi Bikes from the station nearest our apartment, drop them off at the station nearest the bridge and walk over without them — aside from the fact that Citi Bike rentals are for a half-hour at a time even when you purchase a 24-hour session — is because when we tried riding from my office to our apartment a few days earlier, I quickly discovered that the bridge was too steep for my out-of-shape leg muscles to handle at this point. We had ended up walking the bikes over the upward-sloping Manhattan half of bridge on the pedestrian path, and at one point, a cyclist in the bike lane approaching from behind shouted at us, "What the fuck are you doing?" as she rode by.

My best? The Macarena? Your dad?

Sadly, I didn't think to say any of those answers in the moment and was instead just left wondering why she felt the need to be so rude to two people who, for reasons unbeknownst to her, were walking their bikes over the bridge on the pedestrian path, out of her way, and to the dismay of no other pedestrians, as far as we knew. It's not uncommon to see people walking their bikes in the pedestrian path, because walking your bike in the bike lane would be really dangerous and stupid, so I guess she just wanted to make us feel shitty for not being as athletic as she is or something.

And yet, even though we were now walking over with just our bodies, we still couldn't escape the wrath of assholes.

I hate to admit it, but it was hard to shrug off. Can a woman not cross a New York bridge with her internet-paranoid boyfriend in peace?, I wondered. Is this the inevitable New York experience? I started thinking about all the times I'd been shoved into a crowded subway car, catcalled on my way to work, upstreamed while hailing a cab, hit in the face with a dead flower when I didn't hear a panhandler ask me for money, followed off the train by a guy with a blade (OK, those last two things only happened once).

Maybe most New Yorkers — most people — are bad, I thought for a moment.

Once we were off the bridge in Manhattan, we walked to a Citi Bike station on Avenue D below Houston Street to continue our ride to the paint store about a mile-and-a-half northwest. I strapped my bag into the basket-y thing in front of my chosen bike's handlebars and secured them with the attached bungee cords. I noticed that the cords seemed a little less taut on this bike than on the one I'd ridden earlier in Brooklyn, but I shrugged it off and assumed it would do its one job.

That's foreshadowing, you guys.

D and I rode up Avenue D, cut west on two-way East 10th Street, up First Ave. for a block, and then west again on one-way East 11th Street. We made it just past Third Ave. — one avenue from our destination — when I suddenly realized that my bag was gone.

"My bag is gone!" I shouted, as one does when one realizes their bag is gone.

I interpreted D's attempt to keep me level-headed with an "OK, so you lost your stuff" as an offensive underestimation of the big deal this was — my bag contained my iPhone and wallet, which had my driver's license, credit cards, office ID, and $23 in cash — and I abruptly turned around and sped off alone in a cloud of incredulous adrenaline.

I somehow hadn't noticed where along the way it had slipped out from under the cords, so I just pedaled back furiously, neck desperately extended, over the route we had taken. Suddenly, I was the asshole, riding east down a westbound street — a New York cycling sin only slightly less frowned-upon than riding on the sidewalk. At one point, I even darted across an intersection with what I thought was enough yellow-light time, only to almost get hit by one of those adorable mini Mack trucks (which are much less adorable when they almost kill you).

D caught up with me halfway down Avenue D, near another Citi Bike station. Neither of us had spotted the bag along the way.

"You're a much more confident cyclist when you're upset," he said. "But please don't ride into traffic again. I thought you were going to die."

I registered what he was saying, but my mind was stuck on the lost bag. In less than 10 minutes, it seemed someone had already picked it up. I'd have to buy a new phone, cancel my cards, request new IDs. I was so mad at that damn bungee cord, and so mad at whoever took my bag and had probably already spent the $23.

"I need to get home and start canceling my cards," I huffily said to D, pulling my bike into the station. "Do you mind paying for a cab home? I don't want to waste any time." The last time I lost a wallet, someone tried to buy a shit-ton of golf shirts at Steinmart with my debit card. Steinmart. It's a nightmare I was unwilling to relive.

"Oh, wait! Do you have 'Find My iPhone' enabled?" D said.

"Oh shit, yes!"

He activated it on his phone, and lo and behold, a map showed us that my iPhone (and presumably the bag it was in) was on 11th Street near First Ave.

"But I didn't see it," I said. "Well, let's go back."

I started to head back to the bike when I realized that, in order to get it out again, I'd need the debit card that was in the lost bag. Crap.

There were no cabs around, so we started walking as fast as we could in the direction of the phone. After we emerged from the northwest side of Tompkins Square Park — a lovely route, by the way, and I highly recommend it when you're freaking out about possible identity theft — D refreshed the app and said, "It's moving!"

Someone definitely had my bag — it was now on First Ave. between 13th and 14th Streets. We alternated between speed-walking and sprinting until our location matched that of the phone on the map. We walked into several shops along the block, checking out what people were carrying and asking cashiers if anyone had dropped off a found purse. Nothing.

"Wait," D said, looking at his phone. "It's back down on 11th!"

At this point, I didn't know if I was going to have to prepare myself for a confrontation or some kind of ransom demand, but D and I hauled ass three blocks south until the app once again showed us overlapping the phone's location. We separated momentarily, D going into a smoke shop and me going into a small restaurant.

Moments later, D came into the restaurant while talking on the phone with someone. Somewhere along the way, D had activated "lost mode," which puts a message on the lost phone's screen telling whoever finds it to call, in this case, D's number. And whoever had my phone did just that.

"You're on the sidewalk? OK, we'll be right there," D said to the person on the other end. Then he turned to me. "Some guy has your stuff."

I was relieved, but only slightly. I had no idea what this guy would want in exchange for said stuff.

We walked outside, and there, holding my phone, was a stocky man about my height, around 50-something, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and smoking a cigar.

"Is this yours?" he said to me in a familiar accent — one not unlike my dad's, that of a native New Yorker.

"Oh my gosh, yes," I said with uncontrollably dramatic gratitude in my voice as he handed it over to me without hesitation. "Do you have the bag, too?"

"Yeah, it's in my car," he said, pointing to the Elantra a few feet away. I admired his ability to enunciate with the cigar in his mouth. "It was just sitting in the middle of the street. I was worried you got snatched or somethin'!"

Even though we were in broad daylight and D was right next to me, I kept a bit of distance as he opened the back door of the car and took my purse off the floor. He handed that to me without hesitation, too.

"I cannot thank you enough," I said at least three times. "Can I, like, give you a 20 or something?" It sounded ridiculous as soon as I said it, but at that moment, it was the only way I could literally repay him for doing the right thing and saving me so much grief.

"Nah, don't worry about," he said. "Pay it forward."

Pay it forward! He actually said that, answering my long-burning question, Does anyone actually say "pay it forward"?

"What's your name?" I asked, reaching out to shake his hand.

"Frank," he answered.

"Thank you so, so much, Frank," I said.

"Frank," D said, shaking his hand next, "You have restored my faith in humanity."

We wished him a great day and started walking — slowly, this time, as the 88-degree heat was finally taking its toll on us now that the adrenaline was wearing off — in the direction of a pub, where we spent the $23 on much-needed cold beer.

We toasted to Frank, and to people who remind us not to be surprised when someone isn't an asshole.

Frank didn't restore my faith in humanity; I hadn't lost my faith in humanity. He did, however, put one in the win column for the good guys.