The Town Criers

In early December, I encountered four young women crying on the streets of New York City in the span of

In early December, I encountered four young women crying on the streets of New York City in the span of roughly two weeks. Clearly nothing to make a mountain of, but it was enough to dine out on over the holidays during the awkward pauses in the stream of the lighthearted marveling over how the world is falling to pieces.

A few days after New Year’s, I was climbing the steps at the Borough Hall subway station and preparing myself to face the bitter cold. I was thinking to myself that I would probably have to find a new gag because young women probably tone down on the crying when their teeth are chattering. Then I noticed the young woman approaching was in tears.

It was time to take a closer look at the crying scene in New York.

On the subway, I met Patrice Anderson, an attractive 25-year-old social worker, born and raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. She said public crying is part of the code of the sidewalk: You’re anonymous and whatever you’re doing is your business. In New York, public is private.

“It’s true emotion and sometimes you can’t hide that,” said Ms. Anderson, nattily attired in a black-and-white herringbone trench coat with flared lapels, matching paper-boy hat and gold hoop earrings. “It could be that you’re worried about where you’re going to get your next meal, or you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep.”

The last time Ms. Anderson cried in public was two months ago, while walking down Park Avenue. It happened during her lunch break from a training workshop uptown. “I was walking and talking to my mom on the phone, and I was defending my boyfriend; there was an issue. Then I got so upset, I had to stop.” She said she rarely sees people crying on the streets in Brownsville. No, it’s a Manhattan thing: It’s cheek-by-jowl here; you can speed-walk but you cannot hide, and so we cry in public, and that’s that.

I went to the opening of Elaine Stritch’s new show over at the Carlyle. Rosie O’Donnell was there with her good pal Natasha Lyonne and told me that two years ago, after a couples-therapy session, a bad one, she was walking down Columbus Avenue bawling her eyes out. Everyone started noticing, because she’s Rosie, so she darted into a nearby Coach store and bought the biggest pair of sunglasses she could find. They cost $400. She never buys $400 sunglasses; they don’t carry them at Target, where she does all of her shopping. (That said, she’s glad that she did because she still has the glasses and the lenses are fantastic.)

She and Ms. Lyonne had recently been to see the opening of the new movie Precious over at the theater near Lincoln Center. It took a lot of doing, but they managed to get into the first show, at 11 a.m. “Within 20 minutes of the movie, the entire theater was in tears. I mean audible sobs,” Rosie told me.

The director Mike Nichols has lived in New York for eons. I asked him if he’s ever seen someone crying on the street. “I’ve never seen it,” he said, en route to his chauffeured car. I asked him if he ever cried, at all, ever. “Not that I can remember,” said Mr. Nichols, who looked trim, tan and taut-faced. “I’ve got nothing to cry about. I’m happy.”

Through with showbiz, I considered models. “They cry all the time,” said renowned stylist Sarajane Hoare. “They’re too young and they’re always jet-lagged, so you’ll always see them crying all the time all over the place.” Ms. Hoare has difficulty seeing at night and recently tripped over a tree guard on the sidewalk. “I had all of these apples and oranges, and I virtually cut my shins in half. And I screamed and screamed and two very posh women—because, you know, I live on 75th and the edge of Park Avenue—they walked straight by me! You would never get that in London. Someone would come up and say, ‘Are you all right, sweetie?’” That’s how the model Sophie Dahl got her big break! She was randomly crying on a stoop that happened to belong to the late fashion icon Isabella Blow.

And after your foot’s in the door? Author Anne Kreamer just completed a book on crying in the workplace, working title Big Girls Do Cry, conducting several national polls. They revealed that an astonishing number of Americans cry regularly at the office, with women wailers in the workplace outnumbering men four to one. “I mean, obviously people are stressed more as a result of the economy, and I’m sure there’s more a sense of huge depression—but that there are basically people who cry and people who don’t cry, kind of tribes for this,” she said. “Although women are obviously more hardwired to be emotionally expressive.” Ms. Kreamer further discovered that on balance younger people cry more than older people. Also: “The transparency of lives lived fully in the context of social media, I think, leads to a very different perception of what’s and appropriate emotional display and what’s not,” she said.

Ms. Kreamer’s research helps illuminate a prevalent strain of gushers who cheapen the tears of others and represent a nuisance to the population as a whole: Call them the town criers.

They come in different forms. There is the woe-is-me hobble, the I-don’t-give-a-damn stomp, the die-a-little-every-day shuffle—which is ideal for the young lady who needs to get in and out of Whole Foods in 20 minutes, tops, and wants to keep a good trickle going. You might find yourself in the wake of a sobber or screamer or—God help you—a shrieker.

“It’s almost like an act of defiance,” said one female colleague who’s cried on the sidewalk more times than she can count, once, after gazing into the tortured eyes of a carriage horse, from Time Square all the way down to the East Village. “You’re almost daring people to stop you and you sort of know no one will.”

“There’s something cinematic about it, when you’re walking in New York.”

Sloane Crosley, whom The Los Angeles Times says is a mix of Nora Ephron, Dorothy Parker and David Sedaris, has cried at least a few times out on the streets. After more or less getting fired from her first job, she went outside, whipped out her cell phone, pretended to call someone and cried. It makes sense, she explained, “because God knows what information is being sort of conveyed to you through the phone, whereas if you’re just standing and crying, it’s a little dramatic.”

She does think the crying here is a little much. “For as public a city as we are, there are plenty of nooks and crannies where you can do that by yourself. Like, I don’t see why you would have to see someone crying in public for more than like 20 seconds,” Ms. Crosley said, whose second book, How Did You Get This Number?, will be published this spring. On the other hand:

“People should be able to enjoy the full emotional range; that’s why this city exists.”

Jamie Clayton, the 32-year-old Lower East Side transsexual once profiled in this column and soon to be host of a VH1 makeover show, complained of suffering town criers on a near-weekly basis.

“It’s one of my biggest pet peeves,” she said. “It’s mostly you see girls, like, yelling, like, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for like 20 minutes,’ or like getting all hysterical and upset. To me, unless you’re crying out of laughter”—which is not uncommon for Ms. Clayton—“it’s kind of a private, personal thing. I mean, sometimes you can get devastating news and it’s kind of uncontrollable.

But it’s like, ‘Come on, pull yourself together.’ It’s definitely gone in the direction of publicly acceptable, and I don’t necessarily think that it is.”

She described the typical crier type as an “attention-grabbing, needy sort of chick,” not confident or in control, but probably not too sloppy, because she “doesn’t mind getting that sort of attention.”

My friend Harris lived in New York for six years before moving back to L.A. He said that he hasn’t seen nearly as much crying out there as he did here, and, yes, he does look at people in their cars. “The annoying thing about seeing a girl sobbing into her phone is ‘I always feel like I should ask if everything is okay, do you need any help.’”

Unless one sees blood or anything to indicate a real emergency, the New Yorker’s policy is to not engage a crier—if possible, to ignore him or her completely.

“It seems that I alone realize that all tears concern protection,” said the great Tom Wolfe over the phone. “And sometimes people will cry because someone has been protected; it’s not always a call to come protect me, it can be just, ‘Oh my God, he protected her.’”

When John Glenn returned from being the first American in orbit, he said, there were big tough Irish cops crying in the intersections of New York, because they believed that he had risked his own life to bring us even with the Russians.

But our sensitivities have changed. On my way into the cleaners, I noticed a woman with lots of tattoos, sitting on some stairs with her cat in a travel box. She looked sad and was intently staring at nothing in particular. The signs were there. But after a few minutes there was no additional glaze or puffiness about the eyes, so I gave up waiting.

The Town Criers