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Commentary: Sotomayor, the real New Yorker

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While walking recently on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk, I suddenly saw a wall of water crash down from somewhere over our heads. The source was a truck from which a fat hose was pouring water on the flower baskets hanging from posts. The baskets were intended to add some charm to the urban streetscape. Nice try.

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We pedestrians all looked at the truck in wonder. Then, though splattered, we moved on -- not unlike Sonia Sotomayor, who broke her ankle at LaGuardia Airport and by afternoon was making the Washington rounds on crutches. Just another day of challenges for a native New Yorker.

You surely know the '70s disco song, "Native New Yorker," performed by, by -- you got it! -- Odyssey. It sings of the exciting but rough-and-tumble world of women in New York City: "What you waitin' for, no one opens the door/For a native New Yorker."

This goes to explain Sotomayor's curt or brusque manner in the courtroom, the source of some complaint. Had the Supreme Court nominee been male, would anyone have made a fuss over this? Absolutely not. The discussion here, however, is more about culture than about gender.

Urbanites accustomed to unending hours of interpersonal dealing don't mind a straight-to-the punch approach. It saves time, which runs excruciatingly slow when someone rambles. But other people may hear a rudeness that is not intended.

"Whaddaya want?" doesn't go over well in parts of the country where the protocol calls for a gentler form of rhetoric. Note that the cartoon insects in pesticide ads speak with a Brooklyn accent.

And no Gothamite can escape the compacting pressures. There's no avoiding bad smells, stray elbows and the occasional splash of flower-basket water. Even the well-heeled fight over cabs and get driven nuts by sadistic drills that never sleep.

Bronx-born Sotomayor comes from those least cushioned from the indignities. When New Yorkers hear a subway coming into the station, their rush down the stairs turns into a stampede -- and the train is going in the wrong direction half the time. Women do this in high heels.

Sotomayor's decision to side with the City of New Haven, Conn., after it discarded the results of a firefighters exam because minorities didn't score high enough will rightly be examined in the hearings. But turning her talk of a "Latina soul," a reference to her Puerto Rican heritage, into evidence of racism is utter nonsense given her hometown.

New York is highly conscious of its tribes, not so much in the academic let's-celebrate-diversity way as in the let's-not-fight-all-the-time mode. The city would fall apart if different types couldn't get along on some level. People are so crunched together. (Park Avenue and the South Bronx are on the same subway line.) Racial and ethnic strife is reduced by giving each group its official space.

Some cities and states have deemed Columbus Day insensitive to Native Americans and dropped the observance. Berkeley, Calif., renamed the holiday "Indigenous People's Day."

New York not only has a Columbus Day parade, it has two. One is for Italian-Americans. The other is for Hispanics. The parades are held on Fifth Avenue (albeit on different days), and the same city officials march in both.

In 2005, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia served as grand marshal of the Italian Columbus Day Parade. If he had made no reference on that October Monday to his Italian soul, or something on that order, I'd be very surprised. Another New Yorker (he grew up in Queens), Scalia is also well known for sharp commentary.

And so everyone lay off Sonia Sotomayor, will ya?

Harrop's e-mail address is: opinion@wctrib.com.

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