Anyway, I've been fortunate enough in my lifetime to have lived and travelled all over the world, so I'm fairly familiar with the experience of culture shock, sometimes in the extreme. I've had to reacquaint myself with the use toilets in southeast Asia, been illiterate and helpless in Japan, lactose intolerant for a variety of cheeses in France, etc. etc. You expect and even welcome these little adventures when travelling or living abroad. They are what make the whole experience worth it in the end. But the thing about culture shock is that you don't expect to experience it in your own country. Well, let me tell you, having grown up in Southern California, lived in New York, and now residing in the Southeast, our nation is rife with very distinctive regional cultures, any of which will put your system into the worst kind of insidious culture shock. This particular brand of culture shock is so much worse than the rest for the very reason that it just sneaks up on you. Take New York for example. I moved there in March of 2000 feeling hopeful, excited, and ready to take on the world. I knew there'd be an adjustment period, but I figured how bad could it be? After all, I'd lived in Japan where I didn't speak or read the language. New York was only 4,000 miles away, and I already knew the language, the traffic laws, the food, etc. Well, within one day, I realized how very much I was out of my element. The Southern California lifestyle just doesn't translate on the East coast...not that I expected it to, but I didn't exactly expect to have to relearn so much. For example, you may not know that in most other parts of the country, waiting in a line is referred to as just that, "waiting IN line." However, in New York, it's affectionately referred to as, "waiting ON line." Now I'm not the most computer savvy person, but last I checked, the phrase, "being on line," in our culture referred to using the internet. Who knew that one little twist of a preposition could cause so much confusion. Perhaps one of the more charming examples of my culture shock experience in New York was my first experience at ordering a pizza (on my first full day there, mind you). The conversation went something like this...
Me (on telephone): Hi. I'd like to order a large pizza to be delivered.
Pizza Guy (PG): One large pie. Anything else?
Me (with a stupefied look on my face): No, no pie. Just a large pizza please.
PG (with a hint of disbelief at my stupidity, or perhaps wondering if I was mildly developmentally delayed): Yeah, one large pie. Address please....
Me (irritated and insistent at this time): NO! I don't want a pie, I want a pizza! One large pizza!
PG: Lady.....where are you from!?!
Me: What difference does it make?!? I'm from California! Could I just order a pizza please?!?
PG: Oh. (with a hint of disdain...NY'ers HATE California as I soon found out by the nasty notes left on my car while it still had CA plates on it). Ok. Well here in NY, a pizza is called a pie.
Me: Well back in California, pie only comes in the pumpkin, key lime, cherry, and pecan varieties.
PG: Well, you ain't in California anymore, are you?!?
Me: (at this point resigning myself to defeat, and desperately hungry) Yeah, I guess not. Ok. One large pie please.
PG: (with a hint of sympathy in his voice) And the address....
I eventually got my pie. And wouldn't you know that the guy on the phone was the owner of the pizza place, who personally delivered my pie himself because he, "had to meet," me. Yeah....great.
In any case, my first few months in NY proved to be more of an adventurous learning experience than I had ever expected. And in the end, I learned to love it there. It was my home. And I distinctly remember there being one moment (as there always is with culture shock) in particular where I realized that I had finally figured the whole New York thing out.....one moment where I felt like I was finally home, where I had assimilated. I'll leave you with that moment here......and I'll be sure to document the day that I can finally call this place I've affectionately named, "Goose Crik, South Cackalackie," home.
New York State of Mind (written sometime in 2000)
I'm sure many of you will remember a popular song from a few years back entitled "Wear Sunscreen". For those of you that don't, imagine a man's voice replete with all the qualities of a movie preview voice over, delivering a graduation speech and offering up the few bits of wisdom he's managed to garner on life's journey. One of those bits of wisdom included this line, "Live in New York, but leave before it makes you hard."
After this morning's incident while dropping a friend off at the Fordham Road Metro North station, I think the line should be ammended as follows, "Live in New York, but leave before it makes you homicidally crazy." Here's how it goes....
My friend Lilia has been staying with me for the past week. She's on a life's journey that's taking her out of a dead-end job and into the heart of the Costa Rican rain forest for a bit of retreat and reflection. However this morning, she's regressing a bit and heading back up the coast to Martha's Vineyard with a friend. So, around 9:00, we packed up her things, loaded them in the car, and headed out to the Metro North station so she could catch a train.
Upon arrival, it was immediately clear that parking would be an issue. So I dropped Lilia off at the curb with her luggage and told her to wait while I looked for a spot. Now common sense would tell you that in New York City, when you're dropping someone at a station, it's best to just double park for a minute or two and say your goodbyes at the curb. But Lilia's been having a rough time lately, and I really wanted to put my full attention into a heart-felt goodbye as I wished her well on this next adventure. So, off I went.
To make a long story short....and anyone who has tried to find parking in New York knows the approximate length of that story, I finally happened upon a school bus pulling out of a metered space across from Fordham University and a few blocks from the train station. Delighted at my good fortune, I turned on my signal and waited. That is when I noticed two older gentlemen coming out of the local bodega and heading for my spot. They were blindly stepping into the street, obviously signaling a friend of theirs a few car lengths away, and trying to claim this spot as their own.
Well, I would not have it.
As I nudged my car forward into the spot and into what they thought they had claimed as their own personal space, I caught the eyes of one of these men. He pointed to my car and then arrogantly pointed out into traffic as if to say, "Move this piece of s**t out of here!" (which was later voiced). Now first of all, my car is 6 years old, granted. However it is far from what I would term, "a piece of s**t." So naturally, I took offense to this gesture and immediately retaliated with, "HEY, get the hell outta there you bastard! That's my spot!" Now two things strike me about this exchange. First of all, it seems that in the midst of any confrontation, especially those occurring on the street or in traffic, I have taken to using an accent comprable to that of Lauraine Bracco of the Soparanos. Second, considering the varitable cornucopia of vulgarities that color the English language these days, I took a bit of pride in the reserve used when addressing this man. However, I also knew that in accordance with my personality, the use of reserve has a once-an-incident limit...and mine was just spent.
So, displeased with my insistence on parking my car in his supposed spot, this man shared a few of his thoughts with me, the details of which I will keep to myself out of respect for the easily offended. Now this is where the story turns from your average parking space quarrel to "homicidally crazy". And I should preface this by saying that I have been working a lot lately and therefore am somewhat stressed out and over tired. However, even I recognize that neither of those are valid excuses for what happened next, nor would they stand up in a court of law.
Getting back to the story, I'm not sure if was the fact that I'd already been driving around for 30 minutes looking for a spot going the wrong way on one way streets, or the fact that this man had the audacity to place his hand on the hood of my car, or that I hadn't had my morning coffee and was cranky about having to get up early for a trip to the train station....BUT, I went from being a mildly upset, yet still rational human being to a crazed lunatic in a matter of seconds. And all it took was some gentle pressure on the gas pedal.
Yes, I actually used my 2,000 pound vehicle to bully this man out of my spot by backing up and hitting him repeatedly while sharing a few of my unreserved, thickly accented thoughts which culminated in one sylable exclamations and colorful slurs. And all that I could think of was that this spot was MINE, and I was taking it! And no bodega-owning-dirty-shirt-wearing a**hole (I beg your pardon) was gettin' it! So I gassed, and gassed as my car repeatedly made contact with this man's kneecaps. I should add here that while I was using my vehicle to push another human being around, this man showed absolutely no sign of alarm or surprise, the mark of a true New Yorker, and it was clear that he'd been "vehicularly" bullied before.
It being two hours after this incident, I can look back now and recognize the sheer homicidally frightening value therein. I can see how this moment of road rage was not only unreasonable, but unethical on so many levels. However in the moment, I had lost all appreciation for that which is moral or good, and had only fixated on that parking spot.
To add yet another twist to the story, as myself and the gentelman were locked in our battle of wills, we'd failed to notice the third party located in a shiny new Honda Accord who'd begun backing her car into the very space that I and he had claimed as our own. Having developed a healthy, vengeful rage for the bodega-owning friend at this point (yes, the rage didn't actually come when I began hitting him with my car, it came after about 2 or 3 hits), my commitment and claim to the parking spot began to pale. And now I was consumed by a new obsession, not for the parking spot, but making sure that this j****ss (again, I beg your pardon, but that was what I was thinking at the time) with the bruised knee caps didn't get it. So, when I did finally notice the attractive woman slowly backing her car into the spot, I committed to a new gesture in this battle which was to keep the gentleman's
attention so that he wouldn't notice the back-ended usurping of his claim. Mind you, at no point in this incident did it occur to me that while I was hitting this man with my car, the Honda was going to hit him from the other side, and he would be fatally squished between two crazed New Yorkers looking for parking on street cleaning day. No, that thought was of no importance. If this man had to lose his life to a parking spot, so be it! I was determined, and such is life in New York City.
And as the Honda gracefully slid into place far enough that the gentleman would have no choice but to concede, I smugly directed his attention southward, again punctuated by a multitude of one sylable epithets and colorful slurs. As he turned around and realized that he'd literally and figuratively been put between the proverbial rock and a hard place, he threw his arms up in defeat and retreated to the curb, all the while cursing at me and my car. I, on the other hand, sat for a few savory moments with a smug smile on my face, waving to him out the window, and revelled in my triumph. I had completed my mission, and the satisfaction was good. And only after I'd had the joy of watching this woman take his beloved spot did I drive off bidding him a sarcastic good day.
Mind you, my friend is still waiting for me at the train station.
And when I finally arrived there, I had regained enough sense of morality, composure, and dignity to know that what had just happened was utter lunacy! Yet as I stood on the corner of Fordham road hugging my weary friend goodbye and wishing her well, I was struck by this realization....
....I had finally arrived. And I am finally.....a "New Yorker."