Mean streets

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 June, 2005, 12:00am

It has a reputation as a city of high achievers, of go-getters, of self-starters. If you can make it here you can make it anywhere, goes the Sinatra song New York. But I wonder increasingly whether that doesn't apply more to those who complain, bitch and blame ... and to the thousands of lawyers who make a few million dimes representing them.

Pop along to City Hall just about any day of the week and you will find a society where every trait, every difference, every modest need, every worry, seems to have a group of banner-waving advocates. It may just be democracy in action, but often it seems to go beyond that - to a compensation culture that is applied to what would have once been minor irritations.

This is a New York where the immediate reaction to news that actor Russell Crowe had hurled a phone at a hotel worker, cutting him on the head, was most likely to be jealousy. After all, that worker's lawyers are in a position to make him a millionaire, given that Crowe might otherwise face a long prison sentence for a violent assault.

Think of the recent rough ride suffered by passengers when a freak 20-metre wave hit their cruise ship during a holiday in the Caribbean in April. The injuries, and damage to the ship, which departed from New York, were modest: a few small cuts, some flooded cabins.

In previous eras this would simply have made a story for the grandchildren. But now it means a group of passengers filing a US$100 million lawsuit: they claimed the ship's captain sailed into dangerous waters in his rush to get home so he could appear on an episode of The Apprentice.

Going after the big pockets of a major cruise line is one thing, but often the pettiness of New York's disease can sweep even a teacher trying to do a child a favour into its ugly grip.

Last week a couple in the borough of Queens got a lot of space in the city's newspapers and on local television because they claimed their 11-year-old daughter's picture in a yearbook was 'horrible'. They wanted all 200 printed copies to be scrapped and a new one issued. The parents claimed the child had been crying and hiding away in shame from classmates.

It turns out that the pupil had been sick at home on the day the formal pictures were taken. So a teacher offered to take a snapshot of the girl, and got it into the yearbook. But it was not as nice as the official photos.

When the school made arrangements for the child to receive a new book, complete with new photo, but declined to destroy all the others, the parents called in the media. Next stop, one imagines, is the lawyer's office.