Come a Little Bit Closer

Having lived for the last dozen years in a city that cherishes personal space as if it’s a religious tenetit may very well be in LutheranismI am reacquainting myself with living in a city that is clearly an atheist in that respect.

As I walk to and from work, I occasionally encounter people who are in such a hurry that they will tread on the backs of my shoes. Standing in line at the library at a respectful distance from the person ahead of me, I find newcomers blithely walking past to the front of the line, as if my politeness renders me invisible. Waiting patiently for a hostess at a bar to turn from her current guest to me, I am nonplussed to find her turning away to greet the new diners who are breathing down her neck. Since she saw me smile at her from about a foot away, I am learning that polite smiles are empty signifiers, as Barthes might put it, in NYC. If you want someone to pay attention, get in their face.

I am slowly re-learning these habits, as if the muscle memory I developed as a child in my hometown is being activated again. I am gradually learning to claim my piece of sidewalk real estate as I stride, dodging around those strange people who only move diagonally in any given open space, threatening to cut off your straight-line movement. Last evening, I threw up my arms in a Seinfeldian (or Costanzian?) gesture at a driver who kept creeping into the crosswalk while I was trying to get across the street. Next time, I’ll probably fold back some of my fingers while doing it, just so he doesn’t misinterpret what I mean. I am aggressively re-claiming bar stools when other patrons blithely try to take them without so much as a “May I…?” (“What, you think I’m a hooker who’s just sitting here by myself at this bar?” I’ll probably say that aloud next time.)

But I still say “Hi” and “Thank you” to bus drivers and shake my head apologetically when I decline flyers on the street. I scamper instead of sauntering across crosswalks when the light is about to turn and mouth “sorry” when oncoming cars honk their disapproval. One bad habit at a time…

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