October 29, 2002

Cities create crass culture clash

While riding a train to Washington from my home in Baltimore, a middle-aged man wearing sunglasses and a Winston cigarettes hat eased into the aisle seat next to me. After the train started moving again, he declared, "I'll sure enough remember where I was last September 11...flying a plane into the World Trade Center, hah!"

This train trip took place on the day after the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. He had spotted me reading a paper on the commemorations that had taken place the day before. I turned to the man, "Had you been flying one of the planes you'd be dead too. In any case, I'm still upset about what happened, so keep your crummy jokes to yourself."

"Whoa partner, take it easy. You must be from New York. You sound like it, and look it a bit."

I have a rather distinctive speech pattern. My voice is loud, a bit nasally, and I pronounce certain letters in a peculiar manner. So people often think I am from New York—everyone from classmates to the homeless guy at the Red Line Garfield stop.

"No, I've never even been to New York. I'm from Baltimore City. I might like to live in New York someday though," I responded.

He shook his head, "Don't do it kid, I mean, to live in New York takes so much money you can't think about anything else. And you can never make enough because status is so important there. No sooner are you living in the Village then you need to make enough to move to the Upper West Side, then the Upper East Side. Not to mention clothing, tickets to musicals, meals in expensive restaurants."

"All right then," I replied, "Where are you from?"

"Frederick, Maryland. But I lived in New York for fifteen years."

"You live in Fredneck? The only thing to do there is sniff glue in the woods and play chicken on the railroad tracks!"

"At least it's God's country son! New York is Babylon, that World Trade Center was a Tower of Babel..."

I interrupted him, "If you are really a Christian, as indicated by your WWJD bracelet, you are supposed to believe that God is everywhere, from the Vatican to the cave where Osama is hiding."

He jabbed a gnarled finger in my direction, "Speaking of that, you know, if Osama knew what a religious country America really is he'd never have attacked us. But they think New York City is America, which just isn't true. People don't drive cars there, or live in houses, or have backyards. The sun don't even reach the sidewalk because of all the buildings. America's about interstates and Little League games and barbecues, not subways, sex shops, and muggings. I hope they nuke that whole sick town."

At this point I simply shoved the man aside, got up and walked away. I like to hear a wide variety of perspectives, but I can only take so much. Unfortunately, I imagine that this strange fellow's views are more widely held than one would like to think. In fact, one can use the question "Do you like or hate New York City?" to separate Americans into two distinct camps with opposing cultural values.

What the crazy train guy made me realize is that I, despite being a conservative Republican, have to agree with the pro-New York group. As a lifelong city-dweller, I have always thought of cities, like New York, as the only places where we can fulfill our total potential as human beings. I hope that some day all Americans will agree that cities are not an anomaly, but are just as much a part of this country's culture as small towns and the frontier.