Sometimes it's a cold, cold, cold, cold world
MY BOYFRIEND and I took turns falling ill upon our arrival in New York. The cold was kind to allow us that courtesy. After all, it was stressful enough to look at apartments, choose one, pay exorbitant amounts to get it, move in and unpack (mostly) when only one of us was sick at any given time.
Even if we hadn't been ill, we needed help unloading our belongings and moving them into the new place. I hired a laborer via LaborReady.com, a temporary employment agency, and a worker named Jesus duly arrived bright and early.
We made conversation while waiting for the freight company. Jesus, a longtime New Yorker, shook his head at the thought of living in California.
"Earthquakes!" he said simply, shaking his head, even after I tried a cheap-shot argument balancing the threat of earthquakes against the threat of terrorism. I hadn't realized I was a Californian until I found myself explaining and defending California to the guy who was helping me move to New York.
I told him: "People make eye contact with you on the street, and smile, and say 'Hello!' Even if they don't know you!" In New York this is not done. As my new boss explained, when caught in a crush on the subway, he must find some square centimeter of a shirt and stare at it for the rest of the ride, for if his eyes wander the tiniest bit in any direction, he may accidentally make eye contact with someone, and that someone might have a gun.
But as I pointed out, the hypothetical gunman wouldn't have room to reach for said gun and aim it, because he's in the same crush as you.
In the Bay Area, I had to overcome superficial prejudices to make polite eye contact with everyone I passed on the sidewalk, or I courteously said "no thank you" to flier distributors. Here it's easier. I don't think I'll have a New York accent by the time I visit California next, but I'll seem more callous in public spaces; my body language will have an accent.
I also amused Jesus with my descriptions of the car culture. A significant number of New Yorkers never bother to get driver's licenses. (I can't imagine what rite of passage marks turning 16 in a mass-transit culture. Maybe you buy a gun.)
I didn't get across to Jesus a sensation that I'm loathe to call culture shock. St. Petersburg, Russia; Tokyo — those gave me culture shock. Visiting those cities prepared me for living in New York, which is a tremendous ongoing endeavor by, for and of millions of people.
I have more contact with more people here than I did in San Francisco while dancing the public ballets of my everyday life, which means more opportunities for disease transmission. Cough, sneeze, herbal teas.
The stress of the move hasn't helped me recover. We've moved in, with the help of Jesus, but unpacking has a schedule that my schedules know not of, and the half-finished job irks me like hair in my eyes. The posters, photos and other wall decorations lie in a pile on a table as I wonder whether it wouldn't be more restful and cheery to let the plain white of the walls show instead. That might be the cold talking.
Back when I was the well one, I visited a nearby 24-hour grocery for supplies. The fellow behind me in line, seeing my purchases of NyQuil, DayQuil and sinus-relief pills, somehow inferred that someone in my household was sick. He recommended a dose of the vitamin supplement Emergen'C twice a day, in sickness and in health.
So, not only is it sometimes acceptable here to start conversing with a stranger, but they also have Emergen'C, which is a surprise since I'd always thought of it as a Berkeley Bowl checkout-stand impulse-buy sort of item. I'll keep my eyes peeled for more such outposts of California-ness here. After a cup of tea and a nap.
Sumana Harihareswara recently moved from the Bay Area to New York City. Read her tales of adjusting to life in the Big Apple every week in Bay Area Living.