Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Vodka and Corn

Source: Nebraska State Historical Society General Collection & RG2053-5

This may be true for the country at large, but I know that most Southerners are under the impression that New York(ers) lack a quality that is the essence of Southern life: hospitality.* I have noted the apparent isolation mentality of people I see on the subway or pass on the way to work.  However, I don’t want to commit to that overgeneralization or give the impression that I believe all – or even most – people I’ve encountered show no kindness. Quite the contrary.

[Spoiler alert: Philosophizing ahead.  Skip to the juicy story after the break.] Set against the backdrop of aloofness that you get on the first impression (of many people) is generally a congenial spirit. Everyone desires community and connection; we all just have different ways of finding it and varying levels of openness to it. Some people have serious trust issues that deter them from any kind of intimacy, and others are perhaps too forthcoming with their inner selves, but on some level we’re all scared to trust.  I am referring not only to relationships with significant others or friends but even the person on the street.  We don’t trust them to give us the benefit of the doubt, so we go on the offensive, deflecting their imminent judgment.  We present a chilly exterior sometimes, unwilling to engage with anyone and then risk them finding us boring.  We read a “high-minded” book to avoid others thinking that we’re unintelligent. We avoid beginning a conversation with the clearly poverty-stricken lunatic on the train because others might think we’re soft or ill-equipped to handle these harsh realities of New York by ignoring them.  And, if we’re honest with ourselves, maybe we judge the lunatic, too.

These things don’t make us inherently mean people, just those untrusting and unloving enough to open ourselves to interaction.  If we’re not mean, we’re usually not openly kind, either.  In cultures unlike the South where hospitality hasn’t been culturally adopted and performed (and often mutated as a result), acts of kindness stand out, shine a bit brighter by virtue of their sincerity.

When a cashier at Trader Joe’s starts a friendly conversation about the bananas I’m buying or asks if I have big weekend plans, it actually has a profound effect on my mood, especially since I’ve just waited in lines that literally wrap around the entire store to buy those bananas.** When a fellow coffee shopper takes a minute to converse about the amazing design on the top of the latte, even share a laugh, it’s uplifting.  When a pair of random strangers at the Manhattan bar who strike up an engaging conversation with me and my friend offer to pay for my cab home to Brooklyn because it’s safer than the trains after midnight…well, bowl me over.  There is hospitality, kindness, and sweetness in New York.

What about that lunatic on the train? 
A couple weeks ago, I was standing in the middle of the aisle during my morning commute, holding onto the center pole and reading Ceremony, which is about American Indians.  The morning is usually pretty quiet, so any conversation typically forces me to tune in, but one interaction in particular made me perk up.

“You look like an Injun.” 

Say what?? I jerked my head up. The thematic connection to my book caught my attention.  Racist comments also tend to make you alert.

An old man was leaning in closely to a young guy, probably about twenty with a ponytail holding his slick black hair, which descended from his clearly Latino ancestry.  Despite his tattoos and monotone black attire, I could tell he was a little on edge but didn’t know how to respond. But there was no ignoring the old man, tall but obviously taller in his younger years; he was stooped less from age than from obvious hardship.  His frame was thin in the way a string of twine is thin – perhaps a little frayed but tough, course, and bristly.  He wore a pair of dark black sunglasses above his grizzled cheeks, and his denim jacket showed the dinginess of negligent washing, which highlighted the plastic white glossiness of his Mt. Sinai wristband, obviously recent.

As the train clattered down the tunnel, the old man swayed forward towards his unfortunate quarry’s face.  The kid couldn’t ignore the man (or the smell of alcohol emanating from him), so he offered an awkward laugh in reply.

The old man repeated, “You look like an Injun.”
“Heh, heh.  Ok.” The attempt to avoid further conversation by ducking his head was futile.
“That’s not a bad thing. It’s a compliment. Are you Injun?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, you can tell I’m Russian.  With my accent.” And the smell of vodka.  Yep. “My name is Igor.”  And the name. (By the way, reader, if you don’t hereby read this man’s dialogue with a Russian accent in your head – or aloud, even better – you’re missing out.)
The kid barely raised his hand from his crossed arms, offering an obligatory greeting to the man who wouldn’t leave him alone.
Igor turned to the man next to them.  “You look Chinese.”
“I’m Filipino.”
“Well, you look Chinese.  I like the Chinese.  Very nice people.  I worked on a boat in Alaska with some Chinese.” Really? “I meet all kinds of people in my travels.  All the world they come from.  But you know who is the worst people?  The Japanese.  The Japanese are the meanest mother…” Racist diatribe ensues.
The doors opened and several people filed out, including the grateful “Indian.”
A few seats emptied, too, and Igor abandoned his sway and sat down.  He raised his hands defeatedly and asked loudly, “Who will listen to me now?”  The question cut through my judgment and my detachment. Though clearly ignorant of social protocol, hygiene, and racial tolerance, this man was only seeking connection. He wanted somebody to talk to.
The other man stepped forward and quietly said, “I’ll listen to you.”
“Are you Chinese?”
“No, I’m Filipino.”
I don’t remember what Igor said to this man, because I was so moved by such a simple act of kindness.  When the doors opened and the Phillipino man departed, he did so with a kind wave and an earnest “Have a nice day.”
I couldn’t help but smile.

“Hey, Smiley.”
Igor.  Naturally.  I had let down my defenses.
“What are you reading?”
I turned the still-opened book toward him to show the cover.  “It’s called Ceremony.” 
“Huh.  You look intelligent.”
“Thank you.”
“I’ve been to so many places.  I tell you about them.  I drove in semi around the United States, and I see a lot.”
I looked at him, unsure of where he was going but allowing him to proceed.
“You know what Nebraska looks like?” I shook my head. “Corn.  You know what Kansas looks like? Corn.”  His thick accent invaded the word, dragging the guttural “c” and slightly rolling the “r” into a word that was anything but American (which was, given his implied point, ironic).  “You know what Wichita looks like?  Corn! Everywhere in the middle of this country, corn!
            ‘But you know where is beautiful?  Seattle.  Seattle is my favorite place in America.”
The subway doors opened at my stop. “Have a good day,” I said feebly.
“Ok, ok.”  As I walked away, I heard, “Who will listen to me?”

I have no idea where Igor was going or why he had a hospital wristband, nor do I know anything about the Filipino man who was willing to listen to him.  His kindness, though, was genuine, important, and certainly worth remembering, especially in New York.

*Or, at least, “Southern hospitality” is essential to the projected appearance of Southern life.  The actuality of it is definitely questionable.
**Seriously, though, I don’t think I’ve been to Trader Joe’s without being greeted with surprising warmth from the cashier.  Maybe they’re trained to do that, or maybe they’re all struggling actors who need to appear happy to be working as a Trader Joe’s crew member, but I’ll accept it.  Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

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