I try to fit in in New York, but sometimes, I don’t think I’m cutting it. (Which is a ridiculous statement to begin with, I realize. What kind of moron tries to fit in to a city with millions of residents ranging from billionaires and celebrities to the occasional unicyclist and dog-walkers with seven or eight canines on the leash to the brilliant a capella singers who entertained me today on the 1 train right outside Canal Street? It’s like saying you can’t fit into a dress; you can, but it’s usually not the size you want it to be. So, get a grip.)
Anyway, excuse my little argument with myself, which I’m more comfortable doing than arguing with other people. That’s where the not-fitting-in part comes into play: People here communicate differently and it still surprises me.
I’ll be listening to two people talk, since I’m a shameless eavesdropper, and I’ll start to cringe. They’re speaking loudly and vehemently and their voices begin to rise. Oh, no! I’ll think. Where will I run when the fight starts? Will they haul out guns soon? Then — just like that! — the two people will burst into laughter and clap each other on the back. And I realize I have completely misconstrued a loud, argumentative talk between friends. People here speak more aggressively. Period. Jesus, it’s a good thing that I haven’t already bolted for cover.
Similarly, the New York humor, which I love. Now, this I get, but I can’t really imitate. “You don’t serve plates with your hot dogs?” the woman with the thick New York accent demanded of the guy behind the counter at Liberty Island. He shook his head and she stalked off, saying, “At those prices, you should.” The delivery was everything here and I could never quite get the intonation right; maybe you need the accent to pull it off. In that case, I’ll never make it.
But it’s the one-on-one conversations that can be the most confusing. As a fulltime consumer who has yet to turn on the stove in her kitchen, I spend every day interacting with people behind the counter. They often look hurried and flustered and unappreciated.
So, being a Texan in spite of myself, I often pause to ask them how they’re doing.
Often, relief and pleasure flood their faces. “Oh, I’m fine!” one of them will say. “Thank you so much for asking!”
At times like that, I am wont to light up like a Christmas tree. I have made a little difference in someone’s life! I’ve made his day a little better! I am a lovely, warm person spreading bonhomie and good cheer wherever she goes!
Yeah, sometimes it works just fine. Other times, I get an incredulous face staring back at me with a what-the-fuck-do-you-care,-sister? look on it. We’re not friends, I am reminded. We’re people doing business together as quickly as possible. Cut the small talk.
It’s like the subway. Last week, I was complimenting myself on how urban and blase I’d become taking it. I didn’t eagerly search the faces of my fellow passengers, I didn’t anxiously consult my map, I didn’t pay close attention to every subway stop. No, I had become experienced and sophisticated enough to read my newspaper while en route.
Eventually, I looked up at a stop. It was unfamiliar. Good grief. I was going downtown when I wanted to go uptown. I was practically on Wall Street by the time I caught on.
With all these experiences, I have to remind myself: Hey, it helps to look up and notice where you are. You’re in New York, where the conversations are often brief and efficient. And how blase and sophisticated does it look when you’re trying to go uptown on a downtown train?
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about the Thanksgiving dinner that was so bad it could have caused an international incident