15 May 2007

A New York State Of Mind

I was standing in what was beginning to look like an interminable line at Duane Reade near Times Square. For you out-of-towners, Duane Reade is a chain that has pretty much cornered the drugstore market in New York City (and possibly beyond, but I can't speak to that as I still haven't left the five boroughs since arriving here). Duane Reade stores vary in size and layout, but they're pretty uniformly depressing, with their sole redeeming feature being that many of them keep late hours and a fair few are open 24-7.

So if you're out and about at some ungodly hour and feel the need for, say, ball point pens and some toothpicks (don't ask), you too may find yourself in a situation like mine: wishing you'd never come in there, tired, annoyed and frustrated from traipsing through the labyrinthine aisles in search of whatever it was you thought you needed, standing in an impatient queue of similarly despairing folks thinking, "Do I really want this?" and seriously considering putting your stuff back on the shelf and walking out.

But having already invested so much time and effort, I wasn't about to give up, even if I was in by far the slowest line, a line made much, much slower by the antics of a woman and the three tween-aged girls accompanying her. The woman was paying for a small mountain of hair care products, enough to fill two bags, but as if that wasn't enough, the three girls fanned out through the store and one at a time came dashing back to the counter with a few more items, again all hair-related. The cashier filled up a third bag, and still the little girls kept arriving with more junk, and when I say "junk," I do not use the term loosely. Nearly all of it was the nonsensical kind of rubbish that only a vast, overweening system of capitalism run amok could produce, and don't get me started on what kind of system must have produced the people who voluntarily consume it. I was almost getting nostalgic for the command economy of the old Soviet Union.

Finally the girls ran out of hunter-gatherer steam, allowing the cashier to ring up the grand total, something like $158.14 (it could have been $1,058.14; my eyes were glazing over by this point). Fine, I thought, the line is finally going to start moving, and with only three or four more people ahead of me, I should be out of this hellhole in half an hour, tops.

But nooooo. First the lady pulls out a wad of cash, and I even thought pleasant thoughts about her: bless you, my dear, for not using a credit card that will inevitably have some kind of glitch that necessitates calling the store manager to sort out. And indeed, the cashier quickly made change and handed it to her along with her four or five bags, which she in turn passed to the little girls. Then, with everyone in the line behind her silently willing her to move on so the next customer could be served, she just stood there. And stood there. And STOOD THERE.

First she carefully counted her change. Then she counted it again. Then she arranged all the bills so they were facing the same way, then rearranged them to face the other way. Then she scooped up her coins and dropped them, one by one, into one of the pockets of her purse. Next she opened another purse pocket and considered putting her bills into it. Reconsidered, opened another pocket, and studied both of them, apparently weighing the question of which would be the more suitable home for her newly obtained currency. Finally, reaching a decision, she deposited the bills, again ONE by ONE, and carefully snapped the pocket shut, then the other pocket, and finally the purse itself.

An audible sigh went up from all of us. At last she was going to move. Or was she? What was she doing now? She was opening her purse again. Checking, apparently, to see if the money she'd put in was still there, or perhaps inquiring whether it was comfortable. What's this? Oh, she's having a look at her mirror, checking out her hair, perhaps wondering if she should pull out one of the myriad hair care products she'd just purchased and give them a tryout.

I'd had it. I was within seconds of saying, "Yo, lady, could you move off to the side and do that, we got people waiting here!" I didn't, though it took some resisting, and the only thing that stopped me in the end was the thought that she might be a foreign tourist or a visitor from some place like California where everything moves at a slower pace, and that it might be very unpleasant and embarrassing for her to be shouted at like that.

It startled me, though, that I came even that close to acting like a stereotypically obnoxious New Yorker. Especially since most New Yorkers don't act that way anymore, haven't for quite a few years. Well, at least not in Manhattan; the practice of being loud and outspoken does still persist in some of the outer boroughs. But for the most part, New York these days is polite, possibly the politest big city in the world, or at least the parts of it that I've seen.

But New York or no New York, I'm not like that. Yeah, I may think all sorts of horrible things when people don't move on or off the subway with suitable alacrity, may seethe with a burning inner rage when they don't stand to the right on the escalator, but I don't speak up. It's not my personality anyway, and years of living in England ensured that my indignation seldom extended beyond muffled tutting and harrumphing (that man wasn't exaggerating when he sang that hanging on in quiet desperation was the English way).

Or maybe I am like that, and my inner id, chomping at the bit all these years to get out and snarl at people in the streets, suddenly feels liberated by an outdated image of what it means to be a New Yorker (think Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, and come to think of it, that was set near Times Square, too).

Yeah, that must have been it: a lethal confluence of Eighth Avenue, 42nd Street and Duane Reade. As soon as I traveled downtown, I was restored to my usual serene self, and by the time I got back to Brooklyn, I was positively brimming over with good cheer. Not enough good cheer, it's true, to stop me thinking dark thoughts about the bozos who schedule late night L trains along the same principles as Duane Reade assigns its cashiers: i.e., frequently enough to keep people waiting in teeth-gnashing despair instead of throwing themselves into the East River and attempting to swim to Brooklyn, but only just.

And while I was mistaken to think my being ready to snap at the hapless customer in Duane Reade meant I was acquiring a New York attitude, bitching - albeit helplessly - about the subway is a far surer sign that I'm beginning to feel right at home.


kristina said...

This is nothing new for you. You've always been a fast-paced grasshopper, scurrying about.

Zalex said...

The entire time I was reading this blog I was laughing and thinking to myself about how I CANNOT STAND PEOPLE LIKE THAT and if it was me, with my short temper, I probably literally would have screamed 'YO LADY MOVE!'.

Especially since most New Yorkers don't act that way anymore, haven't for quite a few years.

This is news to me!