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 Now that I have a job, the next logical step in the reconstruction of my life - also known as Project Leitch 2001 - is finding somewhere to live. As difficult as it was to find a job, I had been warned that finding an apartment would be even worse. Finding an open spot would be tough enough; finding one where you don’t have to pay two months’ rent just for the chance to look in the closets seemed downright impossible.

But - as has been the case lately, to which I reply, “about fucking time” - I caught a break. A friend of a friend of a friend was looking for a roommate on the Upper East Side (where Woody Allen lives!) and was willing to rent out a room for a ludicrously cheap price. I called the guy, we met, we bonded over Radiohead, and he called me the next day.

“You got the place. I didn’t want you to have to sit around waiting. You can move in on April 1.” Ecstatic, I burst into a longwinded, nonsensical, relentlessly loony thank you that lasted about three minutes. My impending roommate, who had only met me once, was quiet, and then laughed.

“You’re crazed. But you’re nice. You don’t find a lot of crazed people who are nice. I like that.”

Now, “crazed” is a word I’m used to and understand wholly, but I probably hear no word more often than “nice.” People are always telling me that. I have an unfortunate habit of overpoliteness, saying “sir” and “ma’am” when it’s entirely unnecessary (and aggressively annoying). You’re too nice. You’re so nice. You, Will, are nice. Nice guy, that Will.

Now, ignoring that nice originally meant ignorant or foolish - classifications I’d agree with wholeheartedly - I’ve never understood this. Am I a nice guy? I mean, sure, I’m pleasant. I smile a lot, make a bunch of dumb jokes, try to act polite and rarely start randomly pummeling the person with whom I’m speaking. But does that make me “nice”?

Popular opinion would say yes. At a bar the other day, I ordered my drink with my customary “please” and “thank you.” When I do this, I’m not hoping to brighten my bartender’s day. It’s just a habit. It’s a ruse. It’s so I can get by without anyone giving me any gruff. It’s so people will think I am conscientious and caring. Often, people attribute it to my roots in the Midwest, as if there are no rude people west of the Hudson River.

Let me assure you, however ... I. Am. Not. Nice. Deep down, once you strip away all the surface bullshit, I’m not all that concerned with other people. I just want them to like me. Me! Me! The way I really am does not matter; what matters is what people see. And they see that I am “nice.” I tell myself that everyone does this, everyone tries to put their best face forward, everyone tries to mask the seedy, nasty, grimy parts that lie beneath. But I think what I do is worse.

Sure enough, the bar trick worked. The bartender commented on how “nice” I was, and that you didn’t get a lot of people like me in the bar. I smiled sheepishly, stammered a bit, head hunched down, my work here done.

I have an old friend who called me last week. She told me she was feeling horrible because she felt she’d deserted a little girl. I asked her what she meant.

She explained that because the city of New York - she’d recently moved here from Missouri - was so harsh and fast and angry, it was wearing her down. She felt compelled to do something good, worthy, provide the world with a little bit of light, give something back. She signed up for a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and she took a seven-year-old girl to museums and cooked for her once a week, because her mother was unable to. Every Saturday afternoon, my friend would head to Brooklyn Heights, pick the girl up and try to make her feel special. But she just took a new job, and she can no longer be there every Saturday. She shows up whenever she can, but her own life has gotten in the way of the relationship with the child. “I just feel so guilty, so awful.”

That, friends, is nice. I am not that. I do not give to charity. I do not help little old ladies across the street. I do give up my seat on the subway to pregnant women, but only if they make eye contact. I am a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, passive-aggressive piece of crap. I am out for myself only.

But somehow, people lump me in with the warmhearted folks, the ones who see the big picture, the ones who understand the world is more than just one self-obsessed person thinking humanity owes him something. Who sees the world through the prism of himself. Whose favorite topic is always me.

What does being nice mean? We’re so busy these days, we don’t have time to actually figure out whether someone is nice or not. So we’ll just use shorthand. If you’re non-confrontational and soft-spoken, that makes you nice. If you’re effective at disguising your inherent self-interest in everything you do, you win the kewpie doll. You’re the one who means well, the one who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way. The one who writes a column about poor me, sad little pathetic dork boy, doesn’t want any trouble. Whether it’s true or not.

There are people who have known me, past the “please” and “thank you” and the “yes ma’am,” past all the bullshit, seen the way I really am, the way I treat those who would deign to try to dig deeper.

And I can assure you ... they might have a bit of disagreement with the classification of “nice.” Though I can’t really know for sure. You’ll have to ask them. They don’t talk to me anymore.



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