You are a woman walking home alone from the grocery store just as it’s gotten dark outside. The sidewalk is mostly deserted. About halfway home you notice a figure heading towards you from the opposite direction. As he comes into view, he reveals himself to be a ruddy older man with dirty clothes and ZZ top facial hair. The hairs on the back of your neck bristle as you quicken your pace and focus all your attention on the ground in front of you. Your wandering mind has collected itself and tightened into one beating mantra — no eye contact, no eye contact, no eye contact.
I forgot to mention about the granny cart you’re toting.
The sidewalk is narrow and only runs along one side of the street. You and the ZZ top guy are getting closer and closer, and all your woman-alone-in-the-city instincts are alive and buzzing. Then, the moment arrives. You cross paths. The guy looks at you and……..smiles ear to ear. The skin around his eyes crinkles into a well-worn network of smiley creases. He nods at you and says, “how ya doin’.” If he had a hat he might have tipped it. As he passes, he notices the cart. He turns back with a look of admiration and says, “I gotta get me one a those!”
This scenario has happened to me like eight times so far. [NOT just because of the granny cart, although it never fails to impress]. I am completely disarmed and humbled on a daily basis by the genuine friendliness of my fellow Asheville-ians. Everyone waves and says hello. Everyone. There’s this one older couple who are always out on their front porch, and when I pass by they both say, “Helloooo. How’re you doin’?” They smile at me expectantly, as if they actually want me to tell them how I’m doin’.
It is not easy to admit this, readers, but as my first Southern month comes to a close, I have realized that this type of friendliness is not in my nature. (Not yet anyway — I’m pretty sure that with practice, I’ll be “how ya doin’ ” with the best of ’em). I don’t mean to say that I am not friendly, nor that I come from an unfriendly place. In fact, I would very much like to dispel this myth that Bostonians are unfriendly. [New York gets a bad rap too, and every time I’ve been there I think people are really nice. They just have very important places to go, that’s all. Plus, it’s frickin’ cold].
I digress. What I mean to say is that I am having culture shock. In Boston, I was a twenty, then thirty-something living on her own, navigating the work force, the subway, unethical taxi drivers and various other “city” things. I knew which parts of town to avoid at which times, I knew not to wear my waitress uniform home on the T, I knew to clutch my church key in one hand and walk in the brightly lit middle of the street instead of on the dark sidewalk.
That being said, I also held the door for people, gave up my seat on the T and thanked the bus driver. I smiled and said “excuse me” in crowded places and nodded or waved to fellow runners. I especially made it a point to hang up my cell phone and make eye contact with the people who sold me coffee or rang me up at CVS.
But I barely knew my neighbors and definitely didn’t say hello to every single person I passed on the street (I mean, come on). Especially late at night or in sketchy parts of town.
It all boils down to this: I had Boston all figured out. And to be honest, Boston is an almost boringly safe city. Are there bad parts of town? Yes. Do you ever need to go to them or through them? Rarely. And even the bad parts of town are nothing compared to, say, the Tenderloin in San Francisco, or various parts of D.C or Philadelphia.
So now I’m here, and I do NOT have this place figured out. For one thing, this is a different economy. Every other car is not an ostentatious SUV. People don’t have $1,000 baby strollers. The point is, people look different. As I said earlier, this is not easy to admit, but we do tend to judge people based on their appearance. (Well, fine. I won’t draw you into this crisis of character. I’ll just come right out and admit that I tend to judge people based on their appearance.) In other, more PC terms, I have always been observant and aware of my surroundings in order to ensure my safety. Sometimes, this entails making snap judgements about the people passing by. In the city, this might mean taking a cab home or switching to the other side of the sidewalk.
On that note, I lived in Boston long enough to know what most people looked like. Stereotypical, yes. Exceptions to every rule? Of course. But you had your Cambridge hipsters, MIT nerds, frat boys, corporate yahoos, ya-dudes, underdressed college girls, tourists, people from all over the world (Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia) and of course the most awesome people in the whole entire world (some of them featured here).
Down here, I don’t know who’s who. I don’t know what’s shady and what’s normal. Everyone dresses like a freak. In one sense, I feel like it’s not as safe here as it was in Boston. There are more desolate areas, and by more I mean both a higher quantity and a greater degree of isolation. Things are closed at night. More people drive everywhere so there are less sidewalks (hence the novelty of my granny cart). On the other hand, I frequently feel like an asshole for not remembering to smile and say hi to everyone and their mother. I don’t know when to be friendly and when to hurry home.
Also, I hate the idea of being less independent because it’s less safe. I don’t like having to wait for my boyfriend to pick me up because I shouldn’t walk downtown by myself. I went running the other day and ended up in the projects. And I wondered, am I really that unsafe here? Just because people don’t have a lot of money, does that make them dangerous? Isn’t it shitty to assume they would harm me when I’m running by at two in the afternoon, just because they live in the projects?
I feel weirdly naive. Here is this whole other way of life that’s been going on for just as long as my life in Boston. It’s not like I didn’t think it would be different here. Obviously, I know that not everyone lives the same kind of life in every place around the globe. But it’s one thing to “know” that and quite another to know it. I now realize that I’ve unintentionally and involuntarily become Bostocentric (yeah, I just invented a word. deal with it). And to come down here and have all my city slicker ways exposed and challenged, to actually change my entire perception of my town and the people in it, well…..that’s a horse of a different color, as they say. But it’s become apparent that that’s what has to happen, and in true Sam fashion, I am up for that challenge. But in true Boston fashion, I will not go down without a fight.
This could get interesting.