When the going get tough

So Hurricane/ Tropical Storm Sandy has slammed into NYC.  I wasn’t there to see it, and oddly, kind of wish I was.  For solidarity purposes.  These are the moments when I know I’m a New Yorker at heart, because even though I’m an ocean away, I’m still there.

New Yorkers have this reputation for being rude and pessimistic, which I have always argued against.  No, we don’t smile at everyone we see, and perhaps we rush by and bang into some people on the way.  It’s a crowded city.  But in any moment of crisis, however small, New Yorkers show their true colors: they are compassionate and eager to help.

Sandy (the storm, not my cousin) is a perfect example of this.  In the aftermath, everyone who has power is offering beds and showers and internet to those affected.  Others are posting info messages about which stores are open and what they have.  And my cousin, who is a cop (not Sandy, she’s a teacher), posted about how he just got home from a 24 hour shift and wants to do more to help.  Those who are affected are posting messages about how they’re ok and even making jokes about it.  Keep calm and carry on indeed.

I often challenge people to an experiment.  If you find yourself in New York, stand on the corner with a map, looking confused.  Or simply deliberate over the map affixed to a subway car for a few minutes.  I guarantee people will stop to help you, and give you the most confusing but well meant native directions you can ask for.  Especially because in New York, there are ten different ways to get anywhere and New Yorkers pride themselves on knowing the best way.  Example conversation:

Tourist: I’m trying to get to the East Village, around 10th street.

New Yorker 1: “Oh, you want to take the A to 14th street and change for the L.”

New Yorker 2: “No way.  The L is full of hipsters.  Take the F to 2nd Ave.”

New Yorker 3: “And walk all the way up? Take the 6 to  Astor Place.”

*Arguing continues until Tourist ends up somewhere in the depths of Queens*

I myself have experienced first hand that New York generosity.  Back in the day, I was simply trying to make a living and did so by trying my hand at an office job for a pretty brutal company.  Partly because I sucked, partly because they sucked, I got fired.  They felt the need to escort me out, which only added to the humiliation.  That plus the gobsmacked astonishment meant that I got on the N train, collapsed into a seat, and burst into tears.  I didn’t care if people looked at me funny.

But they didn’t.  The woman next to me, a large, motherly black woman, said soothingly, “That’s right.  You just cry it out now.  Cry it out to Jesus.”

Across the aisle two people were staring at me and whispering, but I kept on crying.  When they got off the train they dropped a note in my lap.  It read: “Don’t cry.  Everything will be all right.  From two people who love you.”

Years later I was much happier as a teacher, but occasionally prone to forgetting things.  One day, one of those things was my Long Island Railroad pass, which was in my wallet.  If you don’t know, you can board the LIRR without a ticket and they collect it on the way.  I didn’t realize until I was on the train and it was moving that I didn’t have it with me.  If the conductor kicked me off, I would be late for work and really screwed, because I would be stranded in Queens.  I explained this to the conductor in a panic.  Instead of demanding the fare, he said not to worry, that he saw me every day.  As he moved on, the woman across from me held out a five dollar bill.  I tried to protest and tell her that I was ok, but she insisted.  “You’ll need to buy lunch,” she said.

In a city of 8 million people, there are as many examples of good humor and kindness.  I’m not saying that there’s never crime or grit or rudness.  But those aren’t the things that make up the city.  It reminds me of when I used to teach in Harlem.  If I scolded a kid, a frequent response (aside from the bs excuse preceded by “See, what had happened was…”) was “Pssh.  Miss, you don’t know me.”  Often this was true.  One time, I was trying to get the kids out of the hall and into class, and I called for this one girl to come.  Rudely, she held up a finger for me to wait a minute and carried on talking.  I was infuriated at her brashness and let her have it.  Come to find out later, she had just found out she was pregnant.  She was right–I didn’t know what she was going through.

That’s what New York is like.  Those kids in Harlem aren’t anomalies, they embody the city.  They seem tough and sometimes even scary on the outside, but when you get to know them, they’re good, funny, witty, and even kind.  They can frustrate the bejeezus out of a teacher, just as the City can frustrate any traveler. But stick around awhile, and you’ll see the true colors.

New York, I wish I was there with you, now more than ever when the subways are rivers of garbage and the power is out and the crocodiles are swimming around Spring Street like it’s the Everglades.  

Example:

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Excuse me, ma’am

I believe I’ve mentioned before how when I so much as liked a guy, I’d match my name to his last name to see how it sounded.  My high school crush and my college boyfriend had middling results.  I had a passing fancy for a guy whose last name was Kelly, and I thought ‘Caroline Kelly’ sounded like a movie star’s name.  But the best, by far, is my new last name.  (Which I’m not revealing at the moment because you know, internet anonymity, etc.  Not that many stalkers or dangerous people would have mu.ch patience for this blog, but meh).  It’s unusual and elegant sounding, and with it, I sound like a Jane Austen character.  Plus, I get to keep my CCC monogram.  CCCC if I hyphenate.

I was very much looking forward to the time when I could be Mrs. C instead of Miss C, and devoted a good deal of time fantasizing about it and crowing about my new last name to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen.

In the months leading up to my wedding, I resented filling out forms and still having to call myself Ms. or Miss, because I was so close to being a married woman.  I reflected how beautiful the word ‘wife’ is, and how I longed to be Mr and Mrs C.  Some people may think this terribly old fashioned and not at all liberated, but I do wonder how liberated I am in actual practice, despite being very women’s lib in theory (more on that later).

Now, though, people are starting to use my new last name.  It’s on my British bank card.  There’s a package of moving boxes addressed to “Mrs. C C” in my living room.  My students, who I keep in touch with, bless them, have great fun with it, addressing emails “Hi Ms–I mean, Mrs!”  Even my mother sent me something and addressed it to “Mrs. C.”  Of course I like it–I love it–but there is still a part of me that can’t quite believe that’s me.  Case in point–I was doing the calligraphy for my sister-in-law’s wedding invitations and saw “Mr and Mrs M C” on the list.  As I’d done all the invitations for that side of the family for my own wedding, I wondered who that was because I hadn’t seen the name before.  Then I realized–it was the invitation for me and my husband.

I admit, it’s a bit weird, being a Mrs.  I think because I was a Ms or Miss for so long, and, being a teacher, my last name gets used a lot.  In a way, too, it makes me feel older.  Which is silly, but it does.  ‘Miss’ is used for young girls and women, and I’ve always taken secret satisfaction in the fact that when strangers want to get my attention they mostly say “Excuse me, Miss.”  It’s a great sitcom joke when women get called “ma’am” and it makes them feel old, and I’m certainly brainwashed in that regard.  I’ve been clinging on to youth for awhile, and suddenly I’m Mrs, and with that comes a very grown up life where I’m thinking about selling and buying houses and having children.  I suppose this might have been different if I got married in my early 20’s like some of my friends, but as I got married in my early 30’s, it’s very different.

It’s not that being Mrs is bad, mind you.  It’s a wonderful feeling to be someone’s wife, and it’s so interesting to think seriously about things I thought I would never have two years ago.  It just takes some getting used to, that in taking on a new prefix, I’ve taken on a new life.

But of course, now that I’m applying for a visa and carefully reading over the application so as not to miss a single line, I note that it says the visa will be issued in the same name as my passport–i.e., my maiden name.  Despite all my ruminations on how odd it is to suddenly be Mrs, I find I very much want to be.  I wonder now if all my documentation will, depressingly, have my maiden name.

It’s funny–in principle I’m very women’s rights, and have crusaded often on the very subject, be it contemplating writing a story from the point of view of the voiceless women in Hamlet, or decrying Twilight for its treatment of women to my students.  Yet in practice, I find myself very traditional.  I always knew I would take my husband’s name, without hesitation.  Should I ever have the good fortune to be a published author, I’ll publish under my married name.  I’ve never had a moment’s scruple about it.  I know some women think that it’s a sublimation of the self to take on a married name, that suddenly your identity gets absorbed in your husband’s by becoming Mrs John Smith (or what have you).  I don’t quite see it that way.  Getting married is, to me, starting a whole new family, and that new family deserves a new name.  I want the world to know my husband and I belong together right on the very surface of it.  It’s the same reason I was very keen on my husband wearing his wedding ring.  I just hope that I get the chance to get used to it!

Oy vey

This blog mentions tv a lot, I’m starting to realize.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  First is that I currently can’t work due to visa restrictions, so I spend a lot of time with the tv during the day, because when you’re alone in a house, tv is good company.  But also, I love tv.  Living in England is about a billion times easier than living in France was, if only because I can have my comfort tv, and I can understand it all.  I get to see the shows I love best from America, and experience the awesomeness that is British television (cue laughter from the Brits reading this blog).  Also, I get to watch the new season of Downton Abbey months earlier than I would in the States.

The newest British reality offering that has caught my attention is a reality show called “Jewish Mum of the Year.”  Like most reality shows, it does what it says on the box–Mums show off their Jewishness, and presumably get crowned for having the most chutzpah.  This show makes me homesick, but also puzzled.

I have to admit, the accents throw me.  Obviously, as this show is produced in Britain, the ‘Mums’ all have British accents, which makes me realize that to me, if you’re showing stereotypically Jewish people, they have really thick New York accents, the kind where people pronounce things as gawgeous.  To hear such very British accents seems very inherently bizarre.

I should point out that I know full well not every Jew has a super thick New York accent.  I have plenty of Jewish friends who were born and bred in New York City, and plenty of them have very light accents or none at all.  I’m referring more to the stereotype, the Mike Myers’ Linda Richman of “Cawfee Tawk.”   By the same token, I also know plenty of New Yorkers who are not Jewish but who have that accent, like my mother.  In reality, the culture does not necessarily go in the accent, but when you’re talking about a very stereotypical show, that’s what you’d expect after all.

Which really is the point of it–I’m not exactly sure why being a Jewish Mum is worthy of a reality show.  To me, being Jewish is no source of novelty.  I can’t even count the Jewish people I know, there are so many.  I’m not Jewish myself, but I have Jewish relatives.  I know Orthodox Jews who are careful to keep kosher and obey all the laws of the sabbath and cultural Jews who I’ve gone out with on Yom Kippur after they’ve eaten a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich (at least the eggs were parve).  Even typing the word ‘Jewish’ so much seems weird to me, because it’s not something remarkable to me in the least.

I have long said that being a born and bred New Yorker means that you are a little bit Jewish, no matter your race or creed.  My family will toss Yiddish phrases into our conversation on a daily basis, recounting our schlep on the subway and the putz who insisted on standing in front of the doors.  Even my  very vanilla white father uses it–when he took me and MR (who is the husband; I can’t think of a nickname, so initials it is) just after we got engaged, he ordered cognac after dinner and announced that he was going to see if MR was ‘mensch.’  I’m not exactly sure why being a good and admirable person is connected with drinking strong digestifs, but my father has a weak grasp of any foreign words–he used to call fajitas ‘frijatas’ for years.  The point is more that he even thought to use the word.

My family hails from Italy four generations ago.  Those four generations have created enough of a gulf that I feel much more comfortable with Jewish culture in New York than I do with modern Italian culture.  I’ve been to temple and Passover seder; I know the traditions of a Jewish wedding and a bris, and I’ve been to a whole bunch of bar and bat mitzvahs.  I’ve eaten Kosher; I’ve eaten kugel and chopped liver and snacked on matzoh. The numbers say this isn’t just my experience.  Wikipedia tells me (using some strong sources), that New York City has a Jewish population of between 1.7 and 2.0 million, depending on whose statistics you use.  That makes it the second biggest “Jewish population center” in the world, following only Tel Aviv.  It’s also 9.1% of New York’s population.  How could such a large group not leave a mark on nearly all the inhabitants of the city.

I love “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” because the culture of it is so completely foreign to me, and I blink in amazement as I learn about the values of this culture and what it’s about.  I can’t quite understand why being a Jewish mother should get the same treatment.  I haven’t lived in England long enough to say anything at all about the influence of Jews in this country.  All I can say is that for me the reality show is meant to showcase the ‘other.’  Those Real Housewives, for example.  I’ve never encountered anyone who lives like that.  A Jewish mother?  That’s just life.

Laugh and the world laughs with you

So there’s this commercial (or advert, to use local parlance) on tv here in England which I find very perplexing.  This is it:

If you didn’t feel like watching a commercial, all you need to know is that it involves an Australian guy in England, and the Australian guy ‘wins’ the commercial.  Now I like this ad, because I find it pretty funny, and because the Australian guy is HOT, but it does perplex me.  The English are pretty derisive about Australians.  I think they might still consider Australia their penal colony or something.  So a commercial in which an Australian guy comes out on top, English society is mocked, and moreover represented by the poshest, longest faced of Brits, confused me.  Why would this sell beer in the UK?  In Australia, or even in America, it would make sense, but not here.

One night the husband and I were watching tv and this commercial came on, so I put the question to him.  He rolled his eyes and replied, “Because we Brits…you know…have a sense of humor about ourselves?”

I didn’t know.  Well, I sort of did, as this was something I had been told multiple times by the British people in my life.  But it’s not something I really understood.  Americans are extremely serious about being American.  The patriotism in my native country is legendary, and we have songs with lyrics like “I’m proud to be an American/ where at least I know I’m free…Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land/ God Bless the USA” which are sung without a single trace of irony.  But even when people are feeling very anti-America, they don’t tend to make a lot of jokes about it.  There are the obvious exceptions, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but even they make fun of the news and politics more than the idea of being American.  And for every one of them there are scores of earnest, table-thumping news anchors.

So the idea that the British are more than willing to laugh at their national identity, to mock themselves for being considered the posh, croquet-playing long-faced sort who live in manor houses, perplexes me.  Nobody would dare make a commercial like that in America without there being an uproar.  I remember when the Dixie Chicks dared to criticize President Bush, people ran a steamroller over their CDs.  Being American is a deadly serious business.  Being British is something you can laugh about.

I wonder if this means that the Brits are more confident in their national identity.  Let’s go with this theory for a second–they have been around for over a thousand years and built the most far flung empire in world history, and then witnessed its collapse and came out on the other side.  America, by contrast, is a young country, only some 232 years old, and is still clinging to the neo-imperialist empire we established and looking warily from side to side for rivals.

Really though, I think it’s just an example of how earnest Americans can be.  Brits may feel things deeply, but on the whole, they don’t particularly want to show it.  My husband’s endearments are peppered with teasing and jokes, and the sweetest things he says are delivered in the most lighthearted manner, as if he is mocking himself for saying them.  As an American, I’m not sure how to respond–I know he’s not completely kidding, but he’s acting as though he is.   It is very perplexing, and yet something I admire.  I’ve never really been able to laugh at myself, and it’s probably a skill I could use.