A couple of months ago my mom’s friends from Tennessee were touring New York for a few days. I met them for lunch and spent most of the time giving them subway directions to the fifty-two sites they had on their checklist for the following 24 hours. Their next stop was Chinatown, not so they could eat or buy silly souvenirs, but so they could “say we’ve seen Chinatown.”
Mere steps from the entrance to the West Fourth Street station, we encountered a slice of life, New York style. A toothless, bedraggled man, who had a sixth-sense that they weren’t from ‘round these parts, asked for some money. He was for the most part harmless, but did get in their personal space (and being from a more rural area, their personal space is about ten feet more than a New Yorker’s). Despite my attempts to keep them moving forward, they stopped and began a conversation with him which only served to egg him on. When I finally wrangled them underground, they were concerned.
“Are you going to be okay?” they asked.
Oh, I’ll be okay, you “I ♥ New York” t-shirt wearing, unzipped purse carrying, white sneaker trotting tourists, but you won’t if you keep staring at complete strangers.
If you’ve ever visited New York and thought you blended in so well that you passed for a local, I’m here to tell you that you didn’t. We spotted you a mile away. In fact you might be following all of the standard local protocols: no eye contact, no chattering on like teenagers, and, for the love of God, no shorts. But still, you’re not passing. It’s got something to do with presence and an uncertainty, I guess.
But this is not a bad thing. My mom’s friends later reported that they thought the New Yorkers were incredibly nice. “We only had to glance at our map on the subway and several people would offer directions.” I’ve witnessed this myself, although it’s less about generosity of spirit than it is a love of New Yorkers to be able to tell people where to go.
Then I take a trip to Tennessee, and the shoe is on the other foot. The locals look me up and down and know I ain’t from around here. What is it? My dark clothes? My near-galloping pace? We pile in the car to drive to a diner a distance shorter than I walk to the subway station. Then we stuff ourselves and drive home again. I feel slothful, but a few more days of this and it becomes old hat. I can easily fall back into my old habits of living in the suburbs. I might be willing to trade being an outsider for the smoothness of living in a less densely packed town. Life is so much easier here – from laundry to getting around to taking my dog out.
But then where else, except New York, would I be riding the 4 train and see one woman wearing a surgical mask, another one with a t-shirt that reads “Friends don’t let friends get mullets” and my one of my favorite musicians, Delta Dave Johnson, belting out the blues on his guitar and harmonica from his wheelchair?