Thursday, November 06, 2008

Penn Station, or the Center of the Universe

I grew up within the orbit of New York City, and to me New York City was the center of the universe. I'd always assumed--without really thinking about it--that my own home city simply was the center of the universe, until something that happened when I was seventeen.

I'd spent three weeks at a summer program in rural Pennsylvania, and was making my own way home. I'd been dropped at the local train station and, dragging my duffel bag behind me, approached the ticket counter and asked for a one-way ticket to Penn Station, in The City.

"Which city did you want?" the ticket agent quite reasonably asked.

I boggled. I literally couldn't understand what he meant. Which city?

"The CITY," I repeated testily, thinking that maybe this guy was a bit slow. "Penn STATION."

"Right," he said, no doubt thinking the same about me. "Which. City?? Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, or where?"

Now, I had heard of these cities. I'd even visited Philadelphia. But despite my purported giftedness, the idea that, to someone within driving distance of New York City, anyplace else could be referred to as THE city--and that those places might have their own Penn Stations--was something that had never occurred to me.

New York wasn't even on this guy's list, though.

I suddenly felt very, very young, and very stupid, and very provincial.

I covered my embarrassment with bluster and said--like the very stereotype of an obnoxious New Yorker, I'm sure--"New York City. Penn Station, in New York City."--and he sold me my ticket, and I went home.

But I didn't go home the same; for the very first time in my life I began to have a glimmer of understanding that not everyone did, in fact, look at the world from the same perch as me. Literature is supposed to give a person that understanding, and I certainly read enough, but sometimes there's nothing like a good in-person clomp on the head to really bring it home. That one encounter did a lot more to permanently open my worldview than the supposedly educational three weeks I'd just had at camp.

It's not a uniquely New York experience to assume, as a kid, that everyone lives and thinks the same way you do-- my dad likes to tell the story of my midwestern suburban cousins' visit to New York, during which one of them, seeing kids tossing a ball on the streets, asked, "Why don't they just play in their yards?"--but I think the sense that no place outside your own home is really real is heightened when you live in an all-encompassing, 800-pound gorilla of a place. Like New York City. Or the United States.

It's weird to be living outside my home country during a huge, historic event like this election. On the one hand, I'm truly understanding for the first time that the United States isn't just another country, that it really is--as my mom put it yesterday when we were taking about this--the other country, for so many people outside its borders. Because it's a world power in politics and culture, and because it's a nation of immigrants--citizens of every country (and this is particularly true in Canada) have friends and relatives there. Everyone has a stake in America, and what transpires there feels very personal to more people than I really got before we moved.

My cousin captured this in a couple of posts about her recent travels in France. And I felt it too, on Tuesday, when, after a morning spent glued to the Internets, I tore myself away for a doctor's appointment and, I thought, away from thoughts of the election for an hour or two. Only when I got in the van and turned on the radio, what should be playing on the CBC but a jumpin' song from a Quebequois band, whose chorus was a French translation of "Yes We Can" ("Si Nous Peux," I think). They followed up with an interview with a woman in Montreal, a recent Haitian immigrant who said she'd been calling all her relatives in the U.S. and reminding them to vote.

On Wednesday, at the end of a work-related phone chat, my boss said, "Now, please tell me you voted! You voted, right?" And the first excited phone call I got on Tuesday night just after the election was called wasn't from a friend in the States but from Uncle Skaterboy, calling from the West End of Vancouver.

On the other hand, in some ways the United States is just another country, really, and not everybody's daily life and emotional state hinges on what happens there. When the mom of one of MG's friends called on Tuesday to arrange a childcare exchange, she asked in a perfectly ordinary way how things were going, and seemed taken aback when I babbled something about being excited about the election. "Oh, right," she said, and I could almost hear her shrug as she said, "The States."

It reminded me of the shock I felt--still, even after that world-cracking experience at the train station--five or six years later in Seattle when I saw someone (the Renaissance Woman, as it happens) proudly displaying a button that read "We don't care how they do it in New York."

I remember, I bristled when I first read it. Then I thought: oh! right! I guess not everyone has to care. And maybe, yeah, it could be irritating for people from one particular place to think that their place is the only one that matters. After all, I'd just moved all the way across the country, in large part because I'd had enough of living in New York. Maybe it was even a Good Thing, that there were different places, and different things to care about.

And lo, I did learn, and became less provincial. Even so, I'm still happy and proud, even after all these years, to be from New York City.

And these past few days, I've been happy and proud to be from, and still be a citizen of, that other 800-pound gorilla, the United States of America.


Blogger susan said...

Funny, when I was reading the first paragraph of your post, I was thinking, "surely, if you grew up within the orbit of NYC, you'd just be calling it 'the city.'" I still call it the city sometimes, I have to say, although I hope I"m a bit more geographically open-minded than I used to be.

Is this just a NY thing? Do people around Seattle refer to it as "the city"?

4:37 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

In Illinois, there's "Chicagoland". It's not merely a city, no no, it's a COUNTRY, and the rest of Illinois can suck it.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Arwen said...

We should force you to post EVERY DAY!

8:32 PM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I grew up less than two hours from NYC, I watched NYC TV stations after school. But it wasn't until I started at prep school that I met people who called it "the city," and I totally made fun of my sister when she began using the phrase, too. In my town, there were plenty of people who had only been to "the city" once -- the sixth grade field trip.

7:16 AM  

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