I spent some time in New York City this weekend, and at some point between pushing past slow tourists and instinctively dodging comedy show promoters, I couldn’t help thinking about the oddness of city life and the East coast in general. Having grown up in New Jersey and spending plenty of time in New York, I usually follow the unspoken rule of, well, not speaking.

People in the Northeast often have reputations for being brusque and rushed, and as we squeeze into subways together as strangers or wait in line for a bite to eat, the most interaction we usually give and get is a quick smile.

In addition to that “hurry up” mentality (after all, it is the city that never sleeps), there is the inevitable sense of danger and paranoia that comes with navigating New York City. As glamorous as the location sometimes seems, its population (like that of any big city) is far from a friendly utopia.

A seasoned New Yorker knows to keep his or her eyes forward and to treat the average person with just a little trepidation, while gleeful tourists stop to chat with everyone they see. The mixture provides for an odd atmosphere of both friendliness and coldness—and that had never seemed clearer to me as it did this Saturday, when a man approached me at a crosswalk and said, “Hello.”

The guy was clad in a stained button-down shirt and blue jeans, and gave me a small smile past his gray five o’clock shadow. My immediate thought was that he was standing too close to me, and my second thought was to tighten my grip on my keys in my coat pocket. The sun was rapidly going down, and most people would agree that being alone on a city street suddenly seems much more ominous at nighttime.

I was instantly paranoid while also mentally chiding myself for being so distrustful, but anyone who watches the news a lot can hardly assume the best in people. New York City is a place for wonderful coincidences and bumping elbows with future lovers, but it is also a place where you need to keep alert.

After mentally arguing with myself for a couple of seconds that felt endless, I took the easy way out. I wish I could say that I suddenly gained a friendly, Southern mentality, or that we had a rare chat as bored strangers. But on this dark street in this big city, the halfhearted “hi” I returned to him was hardly out of my mouth before I hurried away and crossed the street against the traffic light.

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