People who live in major cities are toads, right? Rude and obstinately sullen, urban folk would rather jam their elbows into the guts of tourists walking the streets at a snail’s pace than offer anyone a hello. Slow down a New Yorker long enough to ask directions and chances are you’ll receive an annoyed groan instead. Accidentally step on the wrong Bostonian’s foot and you may hit a nearby brick wall with your face. And just try practicing your crap French in Paris. City dwellers aren’t always big meanies, of course, but enough to give themselves a bad rep.
Today, I figured out why.
I should confess I’m no city mouse by blood. I grew up in Ohio where a trip to the bank can turn into an hour-long convo about the cashier’s bunions and how fast his kids are growing up. People are ridiculously friendly in the Midwest and for the first couple decades of my life, I was, too; chatting up strangers, acknowledging when I bumped into people on the sidewalk, smiling. But at nineteen, I moved to a major city for college and since then have lived in big cities all over the world. I’m still a kind, generous person. But I need the sound of cars passing outside my window to sleep at night. I must see at least ten restaurants and an independent movie theater to consider a neighborhood livable. I wear heels on camping trips. Who am I kidding, I don’t go on camping trips. There are bears out there, you know. Bugs and dirt.
In other words, I’m a city person. Fortunately, I’m not a complete jerk city person who finds no reason to live anywhere else. One day, I’d like to return to a quieter place. But right now, I need the noise.
So, today I was on the subway headed to the Greyhound station. This friendly out-of-towner sees my bags and asks where I’m going. I think, ‘buddy, you’re getting two responses out of me then this conversation is over.’ When he asks why I’m going where I’m going, I lie because the truth would only beg more questions. Then I open my book and start reading.
On the Greyhound, this lovely woman asks the time and I give her a curt answer to avoid engagement. She compliments my hair, so I offer a genuine smile then quickly turn back to my book to deflect further questioning. Then during a stopover, some old Brit starts talking to me because he’s seen the book I’m reading and wants to know what it’s about. And I’m thinking, ‘dag blast it, why do these people keep talking to me?’
I know why. Because they’re nice. And at heart, I’m nice and they probably sense it. But there’s a reason I don’t want to talk to them, and it’s the same reason city folk don’t always want to talk to people they don’t know.
When you live in a city, nearly every second of every day is filled with relentless interaction, constant dialogue and unremitting intellectual stimuli fueled by friends, family, people in meetings, people in grocery store lines, people on the street. You are always stuck in traffic or smelling the armpit of some stranger on a crammed subway. You are always impressing your boss, your date or neighbors, always marketing yourself and networking, always busy and late. You are always “on.”
Consequently, when you have ten minutes on a subway with a foot of empty personal space around you, when you have twenty seconds until you have to get off the elevator, when you have four hours on a bus alone, you relish them. Here’s an opportunity to turn off. Decompress. Have your thoughts to yourself. Breathe. Some dude in a giant cowboy hat asking if there’s a Denny’s in the area can be seen as a bit of an intrusion.
Perhaps this is no comfort to tourists who visit our nation’s cities only to get pushed and shoved on the sidewalk by grumpy natives. But maybe with understanding, our guests can show some sensitivity, be patient with us…
And get the hell out of the way.
[Image from http://www.helpimasoutherner.blogspot.com]