Saturday, February 23, 2013

Not Jaded, But...

When I visit a very large city like New York, I have to change my approach to the public interactions that don't require much thought in the small city where I live.  The reasons are very obvious:  it isn't that I have moved out of my "comfort zone" so much as it is that a large city requires behaviors that I don't normally engage in.

Here, we don't even have a subway. There is no underground world to traverse.  I never ride the bus; I am barely aware that they even exist, except when I get stuck behind one driving when I am in a hurry.  I also don't walk, at least not in the same way.  Here, I walk a lot in all kinds of places, but I never walk from Point A to Point B, as in from one part of town to another.

And so, there is always an adjustment to be made in a large city, and I either make it slowly, or something happens that forces an immediate awareness.

Imagine that you are sitting in a subway car.  The last two people who slip in before the door closes and the train starts moving are a young couple with a baby, maybe Hispanic, maybe Slavic.  (You can already tell I am unpracticed).  He has an accordian; she wears the baby in front of her with its face against her chest.  He is pressing tentative notes on the accordion, while talking with her, like they are planning something.  And they are.  All of a sudden she announces to the entire car that they are sorry to disturb us, and then he launches into a loud, uptempo accordion tune.  The train is now moving; there is nowhere to go.  She moves ahead of him with a hat, forcing donations from the people they pass.  My wife is convinced the baby isn't real.

If you are practiced, you can look down, try to engage in pretend conversation, hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on yourself.  If you are really practiced, you have headphones on anyway, and you can lower your head to the essential task of finding the perfect song on your phone for the moment.  If you are us, you just hope they don't come near.

But if you are us, you have already dropped off coins here and dollar bills there to various people there.  My daughter, now a New York veteran, will not.  But she has a different agenda:  studying to become a social worker, she is aware and knows that they are aware of all of the social services that are available to people in this large city.  She sees the begging as people avoiding those programs that can really help them.

If you are not used to the city, you will not be used to the rushing, the cramming, the swaying and trying to keep your balance of public transportation.  You won't be prepared for the black man who wants to entire car to know that he is not their "n _ _ _ _ r."  You won't know what to do when a woman with a backpack impatiently tells the people in front of her to move forward so that she can get on the train, without considering what that backpack will hit when she swings around, so that she is going to get lectured about it by someone around her, having been trapped by her own rudeness, but it won't seem to end, and so you don't know if it will play out, or if it will escalate into something more.  In very close quarters.

It isn't that people who live in a large city are jaded.  I'm pretty convinced of that.  Instead, in a different context, they have learned, to quote T.S. Eliot, "to prepare a face to meet the faces that [they] meet."  When a person doesn't always go from here to there within the safe enclosure of his or her own bubble of a vehicle,  that person learns to be ready.  For almost anything that one can prepare in advance for.

You have to, I suppose.  Large cities present a larger slice of humanity, a broader range means greater extremes.  Those of us who "drop in" from time to time, may wonder a little where the friendliness is of our little towns and cities, but if we spend enough time, it's there.  We just aren't as likely to encounter it walking down the street or riding on the subway.

When you ride that subway enough, you aren't surprised at all to hear that when famous violinist Joshua Bell performed in the station of the D.C. Metro, nobody paid much attention to him, just routinely dropped a dollar in his case.  Or didn't.

But whatever that experiment was supposed to prove, it didn't.  People are hurrying?  People care most about getting from Point A to Point B?  People don't stop and smell the roses?  People don't distinguish between a world-class violinist and the usual (quite good) musical talent performing underground in large cities?  So what.  That's nothing but a set-up, not an awareness of how people have to live their lives in order to successfully navigate a large city.


Kathleen said...

Yep! And just when I think I've got my "face" down, two girls come up to me and ask me to join their cult.

Bob said...