Subway riders take the uptown 6 train in Manhattan (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

With the New York primary just days away and the airwaves filled with presidential candidates talking about New York values, two guys were discussing the subject during a coffee break on Wall Street.

“Hey Steve,” one friend called to another. “What’s a New York value?”

“Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness — and Ted Cruz is a complete a--hole,” said Steve Giannantonio, who works in finance. “That’s a New York value.”

Conversations like this have been going for a few months now, ever since Texas Sen. Ted Cruz first ridiculed what he called “New York values,” by which he said he meant “socially liberal” values. In response, New Yorkers, including his GOP rival Donald Trump, united in their New Yorkerness, saying he really blew it. The tabloids deployed front pages telling Cruz to take the “FU” train, and depicting the Statue of Liberty showing him a middle finger. When Cruz gave an impassioned speech at a GOP fundraiser in the city last week, attendees chatted amongst themselves, clinking forks on plates, exercising the New York value of ignoring a yelling person.

Meanwhile, at a bar on Columbus Avenue, a woman was embracing the New York value of a cold martini and a plate of eggs when the subject was raised.

A recent history of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz's "New York values" criticism of fellow candidate Donald Trump. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

“I just want to finish my brunch,” said Marcia Gillespie, 72, a former editor-in-chief of Essence and Ms. magazines. On the next bar stool, a woman who wished to be identified only as a resident of West 70th Street attempted to explain.

“We’re neighbors here,” she began calmly. “We enjoy the theater. We enjoy the arts. We enjoy Central Park, we enjoy the city — that’s New York. We’ve got all kinds of people, and we’ve all got to get along. Be kind, be patient, be gentle. Cruz is a moron. Marcia, what do you think of that jerk?”

“He was using New York as a symbol,” said Gillespie. “It’s code speak, so if you buy into the code, you start to defend it, and it’s indefensible.”

“That’s a very good insight,” said her friend.

“Thank you sweetheart,” said Gillespie.

Neighborliness: a New York value. Outside, it was a sunny day in the city. The multitudes were slinging home bags of groceries from the Fairway, or jogging in Central Park, or shopping for pre-war plumbing parts, or standing in line for a foreign film about an Amazonian tribe, or taking a cigarette break.

“Where is Ted Cruz from anyway?” said Freddy Aponte, 35, a building super from the Bronx.

“I don’t know, Kansas?” said his co-worker Elijah Moses, 30, from Harlem. “Ohio?”

“Some place with 99 people,” said Jeury Jimenez, 19, a baker from Harlem.

What did New York values mean to three guys standing by a trash can on Broadway?

“It means we have zero tolerance for bulls---,” said Aponte.

“It means you enslave yourself to work,” said Jimenez.

“It means everywhere you go there’s construction and traffic,” said Moses.

“It means you’re on your way to work and you get stuck in some movie shoot,” said Aponte.

“Or a mac-and-cheese eating contest,” said Moses. “That happened to me today.”

“Where?” said Aponte.

“Times Square,” said Moses, who reached into Aponte’s shirt pocket for a Newport.

“New York values is give me a cigarette,” he said.

“New York values is you buy the next pack,” said Aponte, making the point that in an ever-changing city of 8 million people, it was in many ways absurd to speak of some fixed set of New York values beyond the fundamental ones that involve getting along.

Like on the subway to Harlem, where a woman with a baby in a stroller sat next to a man reading a Doris Lessing novel, who was thigh-to-thigh with a man in a blue uniform falling asleep sitting. A barely intelligible announcement came over the loudspeaker. Something about construction, the next stop and only doors in the first five cars opening.

“Are we in the first five cars?” asked the woman with the stroller, looking around.

“We’re in the first five cars,” said Jose Navarro, 48, a DJ from Harlem.

“We are?” said the woman.

“We are, you’ll see, watch,” he said, standing up at the doors. The train stopped.

“Bam!” he said as the doors opened.

Knowing your logistics is a New York value, Navarro said as they all headed out to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, but there were others.

“It’s learning the things you need to survive in New York City,” he said. “You learn how to work. You learn how to take care of your family. Make sure your mom’s okay, your family’s okay, you pay your bills, pay your rent. You realize the party life is not everything. When you go to jail, you wish you remembered your New York values,” Navarro said, referring to his own stint behind bars as he headed home. “I’m sentimental. I’m soft in the heart.”

Just to the north of Harlem in the Bronx, Ted Cruz tooled around last week micro-targeting evangelical Latino voters, and saying that when he mentioned New York values he was actually referring to “liberal politicians” and not the citizens of New York, but he still got the Bronx cheer. Schoolchildren threatened to walk out during a visit he had planned to make to their high school, which he cancelled. He wound up eating lunch at a Chinese-Dominican restaurant called Sabrosura 2, where manager Nelson Ng did not want to comment on the Texan other than saying, “We don’t care who comes in — Hillary, Bernie, whoever, we don’t care. We’re just doing business.”

Doing business: a New York value.

Down the street at a corner store called On the Six, cashier Rob Karkat was talking to his accountant through the phone tucked under his chin while making a turkey sandwich for a customer, while looking for a Bic lighter for another, while saying of Cruz:

“He’s Cuban and he doesn’t like Spanish-speaking people. There’s something funny about that.”

It was definitely not a New York value, he said, spreading mayo on a roll, answering income tax questions on the phone — “Yes, married, yes, my daughter is a baby” — while greeting a regular.

“You got the green apple?” the regular asked, referring to a liquid energy power shot.

“No, I got the berry,” Karkat replied, handing him the berry flavor.

“New York values?” he said, tipping the phone down. “Everyone wants to work, to make their family happy, to pay their bills and live life,” he said, going back to the phone. “Yeah, Ronnie, what’s up?”

Living your own life and dealing with what comes your way: a New York value.

And this: In a downtown Manhattan subway station, a train dispatcher was getting off work Sunday night. It was late, and he pulled out of a carton of hard-boiled eggs. He set them on a wooden bench. He taped a note to the carton that read “FREE hard boiled eggs,” and the date, all of which was for a homeless man he had noticed sleeping there in recent weeks.

He got on the subway, choosing to ignore a young man who pole danced through three stops, then got off and walked home along East Eighth Street, past million-dollar apartment buildings, cheap shoe stores and an old church with an elaborate garden inside a wrought iron fence. “I couldn’t live anywhere else,” said the dispatcher, who only wanted to give his first name, Joe.

The next day was sunny, and down on Wall Street, a guy in a leather jacket was sitting outside in the late afternoon, reading the paper. This was Paul Feinberg, 63, who spoke for many New Yorkers when he said of Cruz and the whole New York values controversy: “I don’t care what Ted Cruz said or what he thinks. I couldn’t care less. It’s just a phrase, you know? Not to be vague, but it’s just a phrase. I suppose anyone with a brain is considered having New York values.”

Having a brain: a New York value.

Just down the street, two guys in nice-looking suits were standing outside, not far from where the World Trade Center had once been. They looked like Wall Street bankers, but it turned out that one of them was a lawyer who was a part-time actor, and the other was a writer, director and actor, and they were about to film a car commercial, proving the point that another New York value is not making assumptions about people.

“I think he meant to distinguish New York Jewish elite liberals from the rest of the country,” said David Denowitz, 59, the lawyer, referring to Cruz’s jab. “I took it very badly, because I’m a New York Jewish elite liberal. Well, upper-middle class and educated.”

He thought about his own New York values.

“New York is really a shining example for the rest of the world — we’re Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, and we all ride the same subway, we all sit at the same lunch counter, and no bombs go off because no one feels the need,” he said, pointing out that the obvious exceptions were the work of outsiders.

Denowitz had spent that September 11 like thousands of other New Yorkers did, walking around the city, trying to give blood, he said, “only there was no one to give blood to.”

“Were you here that day?” he asked his colleague, Michael Simon Hall, 48, who nodded, and now they were quiet for a moment, remembering.

“What a day,” Hall said.

“What a day,” Denowitz said.

Hall thought about New York, and values.

“I don’t think I can put it in a few words,” he said.