Just Yell Your Question
It used to bug me when my students would walk into a room and start asking questions. Where’s Señor C? Can I go to my locker? Are we doing anything in class today?
Good morning, I’d say, and wait for my greeting to be returned. Good morning… basic civilized behavior. I’d always answer the question, but I wanted to hear a “good morning” first. Or an “excuse me.” Sometimes students didn’t get it, they’d give up, walk away, ask another teacher. Fine by me.
New Yorkers are like these students; they approach you and start asking you a question, without so much as getting your attention. Sometimes, their question is public announcement style, to everyone in the room, and no one in particular. Does this go to Times Square? Do they take debit cards? Are there slices left? Where’s Bleeker street?
That’s the way you ask questions in New York. If someone greets you with, “good morning, sir” or “excuse me,” you know they are asking for money. This, of course, is a refreshing change from Shanghai and the damn “WATCH BAG? YOU WANT WATCH? BAG? DVD? You want lady massage?”
Of course, this kind of asking questions without a greeting is native to neither me, nor Amber, so if we start in with our, “Hi, excuse me.” people assume we’re asking for money. Amber and I were looking for a subway stop to get back to Manhattan from Brooklyn, on a night when the subways were all running wonky. She waved at some dudes in an SUV who were stopped at a stop sign, got eye contact, and yelled “Hi, sorry,” and ran up to the car, expecting them to roll down the window so she could ask for directions.
The light turned, and the SUV blew past, leaving us in the street laughing.
Don’t be polite. Just yell your question.
It’s Back There
I’ve talked a lot about Pacific Northwesterners, and the premium we put on privacy and our tendency to mind our own damn business. Yes, we’re nice, we’re kind, we’re friendly, but we either are pretending not to care what strangers are doing… or we genuinely do not care what strangers are doing. Lili was once incredulous at my lack of curiosity of somebody’s business, and asked me, stunned, “no eres nada metiche, ¿va?”
Metiche? What, me? No! Oh no, the horror… I’m a Seattlite. Seek not people’s bidness, lest thine own bidness be sought.
So there was a family of middle aged French tourists on the subway, and I could understand that they were nervous about getting to their destination. Of course, I was pretending to not care, because I didn’t want to be perceived as nosy.
The train stopped, and a garbled voice announced that due to construction, this was the last downtown-bound stop; if we wanted to continue we had to get off here, and there were various trains, bus shuttles, and walking to other stations combinations that was impossible to understand. The French tourists remained on the train, wondering why it wasn’t going.
I thought, ok, if I don’t get over my mind-your-own-businessness, those people are going to end up going back uptown where they just came from. So I took a breath, thought for a second what I was going to say in French, and then turned to address the Frenchies.
Then the subway doors closed in front of me, and just like that, some pleasant French tourists were back on their way uptown.
Then some Asian shame. The tourists were my parents’ age, and I thought, if it had been my parents who were lost in New York, I’d have wanted someone to help them. I was probably the only one in earshot who could speak to them in French. Why didn’t I just help them? I felt gross.
New Yorkers are always approaching lost tourists. “Where do you need to go?” they ask, without saying hello, and then they send them on their way. Definitely not part of my M.O., but neither is guilt over some lost French people. I have to learn to volunteer my help.
So another time I was on Mulberry Street looking for a bar with some friends of mine from out of town. As we walked south toward Canal Street, a lady was yelling into her cell phone, irritated. And of course she had that accent that might be Long Island or might be New Jersey, I don’t know. And she was yelling “What, where do I go!? I don’t know!” She looked left, looked right… frustrated. “I DON’T KNOW WHERE SPRING STREET IS,” she said, in a derisive staccato.
It’s back there, I say, pointing in the direction I just came, walking coolly past her with my out-of-town friends.
She catches my eye for a millisecond, and then turns and walks in the direction I was pointing. Ok, she says into her phone. Ok.
Bah, I should have helped those French people.
Come to the Water
I was walking down Chambers street to the subway, just passing a family who had huddled to give the game plan to two young kids, and 8 year old girl, and a 5 year old boy. The mom explained enthusiastically that they later they were going down to the water. The water!
The little girl said, crossly, “I don’t want to go to the water!” She stomped her foot.
“Yah,” yelled the little boy emphatically, “there’s nothing to do at the water but sit and be BORED.”
I had my mind-your-own-business face on, but as I walked past, my eyes caught the mom’s eyes, and a smile/wince/laugh/snort escaped from my face. The mom saw and suddenly heard the same thing I heard; the ridiculous truth of the kids’ point of view. Me, I would have loved to go to the water.
I was walking away, but I heard the mom tell the kids under her breath that I had heard; from behind me I heard one of the kids insult me.