October 20, 2010

Does Boston Make Me a Bad Writer?

Once upon a time, I had thought to craft a blog post entitled "The New Yorker's Guide to the Rest of the Country." Many of the agents whose blogs/tweets I follow not only work in New York but grew up there as well. They will then jet off to various parts of the country for conferences and conventions and blog/tweet about their experiences there. It is amusing to me that any of these agents should comment on my conduct given their own documentation of their own poor conduct outside of New York, moreover in that they did not understand their conduct was poor. Telling people they are "quaint" is condescending. Ogling a restaurant because you're the only person there is condescending.* Describing to locals how they do not live in New York is condescending. They know they don't live in New York. They aren't confused about their locale.

I grew up in the middle of Missouri, a small city of 75,000 people (plus another 25 grand for the students at the University of Missouri). I went to high school in a town of 35,000 people. I went to college in a town of 12,000 people. From there I have stuck to urban centers: Denver (Lakewood), St. Louis (St. Louis city**), and then the exurbs of Boston (Nashua, NH). To liken to regional stereotypes, I grew up in the Midwest thus I grew up with manners. It doesn't necessarily hold true, as I've met plenty of people from the Midwest who don't and plenty of people on the East Coast that do. But like so many stereotypes, you can find a kernel of truth if you look for it.

In the Midwest, I was often considered abrasive. On the East Coast, I am downright genteel. The fact that I have mastered the use of the words please, thank you, sir, and ma'am, puts me in the upper 1% (the proper Bostonian parlance being the more familiar "Hey guy!"). I opted not to write my thinly veiled chastisement (though I seem to have accomplished that above regardless) and let the New Yorkers act like New Yorkers. I have begun to question my own dissolution of manners vis a vis my experiences on the MBTA subway (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, because you know you were trying to figure it out on your own).

The T, as the subway is known, embodies your classic East Coast experience. The general sense a passenger holds in respect his fellow passengers is "Fuck you." Or more appropriately, "Fuck you, guy." It is not uncommon (and by not uncommon I mean it happens every day) for a person to step onto the subway trolley and stop immediately inside the door, blocking access for the twelve people behind him/her. Nine times out of ten, when people are left on the platform, it is not a result of the trolley being full, but that people did not want to back up to the mid-section where there is no available exit. Or even worse, there are open seats but people are standing in front of them, preventing others from sitting down.

I gave up riding the Orange line during rush hour all together following an incident where a rather large woman (and by large I mean she took up the entire door made for two people to enter/exit at a time), stepped onto the trolley and stopped, blocking the twelve people behind her (I counted). Rather than shouldering past her (as is the norm), there was no place for these people to squeeze past and all twelve of them were left on the platform despite there being room for at least twenty people to board. This was her spot and those people be damned. I was struck with the overwhelming urge to kick her in the stomach, leave her sitting on her ass on the platform while those other twelve people boarded and we celebrated righteous vengeance. This is when I knew I needed to stop riding the Orange line.

Just yesterday a very attractive (to me) woman boarded the Green line and blocked half the entrance. When people pushed past her, she gave them the most disdainful, "how dare you" look. I went from being annoyed to truly loathing her just with that one look. That's when I began to worry. Is riding the T diminishing my ability to write humanistic characters? Will they all be selfish assholes with a pervading sense of entitlement and regional superiority? Can I identify good people? Or is my concept of what makes a person good being so harshly skewed that I'll write books full of nothing but dicks?

I used to spar with a coworker when I lived in St. Louis. From Tennessee, her mother had raised her with outmoded Southern sensibilities. She thought I was a sexist because I did not agree that a man was obligated to pay for a date or that he was obligated to open a door for a woman. I told her she was sexist because she was assigning gender roles and that I, being the gentleman that I am (was?), opened the door for anyone regardless of gender.*** Now I don't let anyone go first. Fuck that guy, it's dog eat dog. Saying please seems to net me all the karma I need out here, so why should I give up my seat to that old lady or let that young man who clearly has never ridden the subway before go in front of me?

Ick. I love New England, and I love with bold letters, New Hampshire. But there are some things about living here I do not enjoy. I certainly hope it does not diminish my own character or my own skills the longer I am here.

*Simple rule: The rest of the country is not a zoo. Do not treat it as such.

**Locals know to differentiate between St. Louis city and St. Louis County. The city is not part of the county--or any county for that matter. And the demographics of the city are much more representative of a poor urban center than of any of the incorporated towns that surround it. A bit of trivia, St. Louis city is one of 11 metro cities in the US that are not part of a county.

***Amusing side-note, a group of us went to lunch. On our way back to the office, I held the door for this woman and the rest of the group (an assortment of men and women). We went up the stairs and another male coworker held the second door that lead to our part of the office. She turned to me and said, "See? He held the door for a woman like a gentleman." In 24 steps, she had forgotten who held the first door for her because she was so sure I was a sexist pig.


  1. Sounds like you're still experiencing a little culture shock. Or maybe not shock, but you still note the differences between where you grew up and where you're living now. And Midwest to New England East Coast is a big change.

    I don't think you're changing...maybe adapting to your surroundings. You're having to be a little more cut throat in your commuting activities, but do you feel like you're turning into a jerk overall? From my point of view, you've never acted like a jerk, so you should be safe.

    You might just be dealing with the perception of the culture around you.

    Funny story, sort of: I lived in Olivebridge, New York State for the first 13 years of my life. It's a tiny little hamlet in the middle of nowhere. We had to drive 30 minutes if we wanted to do more than pick up milk. The hamlet was mostly dairy farms, and lots of mountains and trees.

    Then, my family moved to Fayetteville, Ga, a city with a population of 15K people. When we told people we were from New York, EVERYONE assumed the city, and would reply, "Oh, I could never live in a big city like that!" We simply looked at them like they were nuts when they complained about driving ten minutes to get to a specific store (also when they buy all the bread and water in the winter, when it's not even close to freezing, but that's another story).

    When I was 17, a friend of mine moved to Delaware, stayed for 9 months, and then came home, whereupon he did nothing but complain about how rude the Northerners were, and how they had no manners, etc. I rounded on him, and gave him a piece of my mind, and told him how Southerners seemed from my Northerner point of view.

    It's true in the South, especially the Bible Belt where I live, people are very polite. Young children call me "Miss Elizabeth" for example to show respect to their elders (*snicker*) Please, thank you, and inquiring about someone's day are all part of the routine.


    Southerners are MUUUUUUUUCH more nosy than the people I grew up with up North, and I stayed in a constant state of offense when we first moved down here. Complete strangers ask you what church you go to, and openly disapprove if you don't attend their church, or don't attend often enough to their liking. They can be very judgmental if you don't believe EXACTLY the same way they believe, or express a different opinion. In High School I also saw a lot of hypocrisy, where one girl would shun me because I watched anime and played Dungeons and Dragons (which is Satanic to many of the Bible-thumpers), but she turned around and drank herself into oblivion the entire weekend, only allowing enough time to sober up for Sunday services.

    I was raised Roman Catholic, which also didn't sit well when we moved down here, and it was confusing when complete strangers apologized to me for being Catholic.

    Where I am from, asking after one's religion is a really really personal question. It's not that we don't talk about it, it's just that it wasn't considered polite conversation for your waitress, or classmate, or whoever.

    I chewed this guy out, and explained to him how someone outside of the Southern culture saw things, and told him that it's not that all Northerners are rude (even though some of them are, but rude people live everywhere), it's just that he was raised differently. Where he sees rudeness, I see people not being nosy and minding their own business.

    Which is why even though I've lived down here for 12 years, I still consider myself a Northerner, because I still have a lot of the same mind sets. But I have adapted. I don't chew someone out for asking me questions I deem are too personal, but just take it in stride.

    It could be that's what you are doing. In that fast paced, dog eat dog environment, if you were overly polite you'd get walked on.


  2. First of all, by coming from the Midwest you are automatically one of the nicest people in the Northeast. Probably in the top 0.01%. That's just how it works.

    And while you may be absorbing some New Englander traits, you aren't really changing. Not the real you. Living in the Northeast, you have merely developed a second personality. There's everyday Joe, who is, well, you. And then there's dealing-with-inconsiderate-idiots Joe, who comes out to face the wide array of self-centered pricks the Northeast has to offer. (You'll find, he mostly comes out in traffic or on public transportation.)

    It's only a fraction of your personality, and you still have memories of your Midwest days to pattern the nicer characters after, so I think both you and your writing will be just fine. That is, unless you get in my way on the T.

  3. Today's Queen of the Commute was a Suffolk U art student that had trouble understanding she was commuting with other people. I stopped to let a car turn off the street into a parking lot, but he had to stop across both lanes of traffic because she did not wait and walked right into driveway. She then walked through the door with the big "Please use revolving door" sign on it, cut through the coffee shop without buying anything, and then took the elevator up one floor.

    I just want to stop people like that and ask, Do you realize there are other people in the world? Or was this all created just for you?

  4. Someone people just don't realize that the world, in fact, does NOT revolve around them. Much to my fellow motorists who cut me off dismay.