“That’s Life in the Big City” – Column # 16, January, 2002


On Saturday, December 15th, 2001, I finally made it to Carnegie Hall. It was a simultaneously gratifying, ironic, and thought provoking moment.

During the first part of my professional life – my other professional life, that is – I was a musician. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated with Carnegie Hall and the Mecca of culture that was New York City. I vividly remember the concerts of Vladimir Horowitz, which were broadcast by the CBS network from Carnegie Hall in the late 1960’s.

And so, on this beautiful, fall-like, temperate afternoon in New York City, I found myself strolling down Seventh Avenue toward midtown Manhattan and Times Square, walking back to my hotel in a serendipitously inclusive perambulation. Suddenly, on the corner of 57th Street and 7th Avenue, quite by accident, I stood before this monument to the arts and music in America, where on May 5, 1891, the doors were thrown open for the first concert there in history. As I started to walk past, curiosity got the better of me and I peered through a glass door into the lobby.

There, at a security desk, sat a uniformed guard. The door was locked. I didn’t knock; I had no business there other than as a curious tourist. And so I walked on. But it got me thinking.

In this building, representing the paragon of cultural and artistic excellence in arguably the most culturally sophisticated city in the United States, if not the world, it was necessary to have a guard at the door. Why?

Because, obviously, in this city of over sixteen million people, there are some types of folk that the Carnegie Hall management doesn’t want staggering in and vomiting all over the place, nor vandalizing it, nor using it as a flop house.

But “aren’t the arts supposed to be for everyone?” The “non-PC” answer is, “No, they are not!” Drunks who are incapacitated, druggies looking for their next fix, and the chronically mentally ill and homeless looking for a warm place to flop are not the “target market” for Carnegie Hall.

I then reflected on the scene I had witnessed at Times Square the previous evening, with thousands of people in line to get “half-off” tickets for Broadway shows that evening. And then I reflected some more. In our land of “free speech”, special interest groups of every persuasion, and, at times, impractical, histrionic and vitriolic proclamations of the current “disenfranchisement of the day” (kind of like a “disenfranchisement du jour” at a swanky restaurant), I had seen no demonstrators carrying placards carrying such slogans as “No fair that we have to stand for hours for half-off tickets”, or “No fair that Carnegie Hall is locked and we can’t go in and visit if we feel like it,” or “No fair that tickets for the nosebleed seats to see ‘Phantom of the Opera’ cost almost a hundred bucks!”

No, what I saw was an acceptance of the realities of big city life. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of traveling to the Big Apple recently, here are my observations:
New York City, after Rudolph Giuliani cleaned it up, is a beautiful, relatively clean, and exciting city which is remarkably safe.
There are a whole lot of locked doors there.
Broadway plays are expensive.
The whole place is expensive.

Now the reason I happened to be strolling from the Guggenheim Museum on East 86th and Fifth Avenue all the way back down to my hotel at East 44th and 7th Avenue is simple: I was close to broke. Don’t worry: the psychiatric business is still good. But I had given myself an allotment of funds for souvenirs, sight-seeing, and an afternoon in the Big Apple, and I was running low. I had also picked up some very nice art and prints from street vendors. TV ads about the ubiquity of American Express and Visa notwithstanding, those folks don’t take plastic!

It was thus a choice between catching a taxi or picking up the requisite souvenir T-shirts for the tater tots back home. The tater tots won. And, indeed, it was a marvelously pleasant afternoon to take a stroll, anyway.

Please don’t take pity on my tootsies. I had a MARVELOUS time. I saw the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the east side of Central Park, making a mental note to take that one in the next time. Then I walked through Central Park (which is now SAFE during the daytime – tourists, take note!) enjoying the calm in the magnificent arboreal splendor of the place. I had some time to reflect. I also was – for a while at least – living counter to my typical tendency of going to a city for a medical meeting, putting my head down, working, holing up in my hotel room, and grinding out work so that I would have more free time when I got home – but that’s an essay for another day.

As I made the journey of the last dozen or so blocks back to my hotel, I began processing the sum total of the impressions which I had been exposed to in the previous two days in the Big Apple, and suddenly the concepts of “limits” and “boundaries” flashed into my mind.

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights,” wrote Miriam Beard, an American writer, humorist, and social activitist: “It is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

These changes about “the ideas of living” which Beard wrote about reverberated in my mind again and again.

“Limits and boundaries.” Two concepts I repetitively review with my patients in psychotherapy. In my own case, there was a LIMIT to how much I could spend, and where I could go. The interior of Carnegie Hall was not an option. There were BOUNDARIES set as to where I could go, and how much it was going to cost me to see “Phantom” on Broadway. The yummy-smelling (and tasting!) roasted nuts on the street had a cost. If I wanted them, and I did, I had to pay. Most of the time, I was fairly well unaware of these limits and boundaries which extended both toward me and away from me – but they existed, nevertheless.

For example, I was relatively well dressed. The folks at the Guggenheim had no problem selling me a ticket. I didn’t see any street people in that museum, however, trying to haggle for a ticket to come in and get warm for a while. Nobody bothered or harassed me on the street. I saw no uninvited “window washers” hijacking windshields in Manhattan traffic. These are new limits and boundaries which the citizens and transients in New York City have adopted over the last decade. The behavioral dialectic is this: “you are free to do what you want, where you want, and with whom you want – but violate somebody’s boundaries, hassle them, harass them… and you go to jail.” It has worked.

My reflections have continued – not only in New York, but subsequently, as I have returned home. I have a number of patients who are working with issues. They have all been traumatized and have had their boundaries repetitively violated in the past, during their growth years, so that they honestly have had no concept of what’s “normal” or “appropriate.” Their lives are like Carnegie Hall opened up to whoever wants to wander in off the street – anytime, day or night.

One patient, when she started selling items on E*Bay, was naively shipping her items off BEFORE SHE GOT PAID. She was “certain” that people were going to be “nice” and send her the money. Fortunately for her, her politeness and e-mailing personal charm carried the day, and people were so impressed with her that they forked over their money after they got their stuff without complaining. But she was lucky, and I didn’t let her get by with it for long.

Later, she was selling off some home furniture. She would end up staying at home all morning and afternoon waiting for someone to come by and take a look, after they had “confirmed” with her that “I’ll maybe come by sometime today.” She was terrified of losing the sale if she was not physically present at their whim.

“Look,” I told her, “this is ridiculous. You’re letting these people run your life. I suggest you say, ‘I’ll be happy to show you the furniture today, but I’m very busy. I can meet you here between 12:30 and 1 p.m. After that, I’ll be gone or doing other things.’ ”

Amazingly – to her – this worked! And people conformed to the limits she had set. Later on, a woman came by and expressed interest in buying quite a lot of the furniture. Although she offered to write a check, my patient declined, because “she said she might be interested in a lot more and wanted to come back in a week.”

Back when I was partially working my way through medical school with a part-time job at a Radio Shack store, I was exposed to this maxim from my manager, John Martisek: “When in doubt, TAKE THE MONEY!” My patient hadn’t quite cottoned to this yet.

The ostensibly interested lady called back later that week. She was still interested, but wasn’t sure how much she wanted. In the meantime, the stuff wasn’t getting sold. Based on what was going on in her therapy sessions, my patient courageously (and correctly) told the lady, “I’ll be happy to sell you more. But for now, if you are interested, I will need a payment for all the furniture that you want to take.”

The lady took offense. She hemmed and hawed. She attempted to interrogate my patient. But my patient stuck to her guns and the lady relented, coming through with the payment and nailing down the transaction.

I have another 20-something patient who has similarly struggled with these issues. A one-time honor student at a prestigious school, she is currently in the work force. A repetitive theme in her life has been that her employers and managers put her down, take advantage of her, don’t pay her what she’s worth, and cheat her. And it happens over and over again.

“Why does this keep happening to me?” she has wailed plaintively.

My answer to her is, essentially, “Because people think they can get away with it.”

All things being equal, homeless vagrants who need a warm place to stay would find bedding down at Carnegie Hall, out of the elements, quite comfy.

All things being equal, those business people in managerial positions with poor ethics and lousy consciences would just as soon take advantage of my patient. Why should they pay her like they promised they were going to? They’re getting more than the normal amount of work out of her NOW, and they aren’t having to pay for it! This is pure bliss on the bottom line! Why ruin it?

Why does this happen to my hapless patient? Because she talks like a ditzy Valley Girl. She sprinkles her conversations with an overuse of “like” and “you know.” You know? Like, she’s always, like, talking like a real ditz, you know? She just, like, doesn’t get it, you know, why, like, people aren’t, like, taking her seriously. She also doesn’t use makeup, so in spite of the fact that she could come across as fabulously well groomed, she not only sounds like a ditzy high schooler, but looks like one as well.

This is a “big DUH.” I have previously, like (OK, I’ll stop!) told her that she needed to scrupulously read and review Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, but, after looking at it, she told me, “but that’s not me… I don’t want to be like that.”

To make the implied themes manifestly clear, let me reframe: the Carnegie Hall management has limits and boundaries – to keep people out who shouldn’t be there, when they shouldn’t be there. My patient needs to adopt the same concepts: both with her speech and grooming, to keep the small insults and slights to her as a person totally out of her life, so that they don’t end up with the inevitable emotional crescendo to an unsatisfying “dynamic climax” of getting cheated, fired, or underpaid ever again.

What we have not yet had a chance to discuss – after my failed reading assignment – is that she and I can talk about the Golden Rule, “turning the other cheek,” and Emerson’s Law of Compensation until the cows come home, but if people don’t take her seriously, she’s never going to get anywhere. The irony is she can outthink every manager she’s ever had, and, on one occasion, had already read the management book that all managers at her company were required to read. The manager hadn’t. She expressed surprise to his face that he hadn’t yet read the book and she had! Oooops.

Let’s get topical about this “limits and boundaries” stuff. The latest cinematic rage is Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind”, the story of John Forbes Nash, Jr. I had indirectly been exposed to Nash’s theory, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1994, through the work of Richard Dawkins and the explanation of games theory in his book, The Selfish Gene (Oxford Press, 1989)

Basically, in four papers between 1950 and 1953 Nash made seminal contributions to both non-cooperative game theory and to bargaining theory. Among other papers, Nash wrote two of particular interest: Equilibrium Points in N- Person Games (1950) and Non-cooperative Games (1951), proving the existence of a strategic equilibrium for non-cooperative games. This has since become known as the “Nash equilibrium.” He proposed the “Nash program”, which basically involves studying of cooperative games and how, ultimately, they inevitably reduce to a non-cooperative form.

One way to look at this was with a “two player” game called “Suckers and Cheats.” “Suckers” always gave away resource units and “Cheats” always took them. Paradoxically, the “suckers” did well, because they always helped each other out, but the “cheats” did poorly. The system was weighted more toward reality, however, when a third class was thrown in: the “grudgers.” Grudgers could only be taken advantage of one time by a “cheat,” after which they never shared resources with “cheats” again. The probabilistic flow thus amounted to the following:
– The “cheats” made mincemeat out of the “suckers.”
– “Suckers” were quickly driven to extinction.
– The number of “cheats” peaked, and the “grudgers” declined slightly.
– The “grudgers” then began getting wise to the cheats, and stopped getting taken advantage of.
– The “grudgers” did well with each other, because they were basically “suckers” who couldn’t be cheated any more: that is, they demonstrated, mathematically, an innate capability of altruism and cooperation when they knew they wouldn’t be “cheated.”
– Ultimately, the “cheaters” got driven to low levels for such a long time until their existence was virtually extinguished. The only ones left were the “grudgers.”

In much the same way that the manically enthusiastic pitch man for Dr. Pepper used to sing, “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper, everyone’s a Pepper” what can really be said about us is “I’m a GRUDGER, you’re a GRUDGER, everyone’s a GRUDGER.” Aren’t we?! Stop and think about it.

The answer is: maybe not. Those of us with poor boundaries are “suckers.” We’ll get taken advantage of again and again. Only through social programs, welfare, and the altruistic efforts of other “suckers” and “grudgers” – who they won’t cheat – does their existence continue.

The highest and best calling in “games theory” seems to me to aspire to be a “grudger.” This is not a bad person! It’s one who is altruistic and gives, is willing to extend people the benefit of the doubt (one time only!), but who sets the limit to being repetitively cheated. And, probabilistically, with mathematical certainty, up to the “limits” of the exponential increase of the grudgers and the demise of the cheaters, there is an immutable dictum: if we want to survive, if we want to prosper, we must set limits and have boundaries.

As one of my mentors, Jim Rohn, has observed: “We all need to stand watch at the doorway of our mind.” Nash, in the crystalline, matrix-like precision of his “Beautiful Mind” mapped out the consequences of maladaptive, “co-dependent” behavior, as both of my patients displayed.

There is only a slight extension from their obvious lack of boundaries to our own. What, after all, are the limits and boundaries which we have set for ourselves? For our expectations of the way people will treat us? For our expectations of ourselves and what we are going to do with another day with which we have been blessed? For meeting our sales quotas? What are our expectations for our relationships with our bosses, wives, husbands, lovers, “S.O.’s”, friends, acquaintances and the like?

At the core of the mathematical purity of Nash’s genius, at the door of Carnegie Hall, at the perimeters of your and my own intellects and life experiences, and, like, at the doorway of the mind of my seemingly ditzy patient with her marvelous intellect – you know? – lie limits and boundaries. What are yours?

And that’s life in the big city.

© 2002 by Louis B. Cady, M.D. All rights reserved.