One time Scott was taking his niece Renee for a ride through Times Square in a pedicab. They’d just seen a Broadway show. He leaned back in the rickshaw and stared at all the lights around him, the neon, huge TV screens, advertisements several stories high. Scott’s been a New Yorker a long time now, but living in the East Village he rarely does touristy things like Broadway shows or gaping at the electric splendour of Times Square, yet to his surprise he was loving it. From ground level, from the middle of the street, without having to crane his neck upwards, he could see how extraordinarily beautiful it was.
He sat in wonder staring, while Renee talked animatedly about the show and consulted her program. "Isn’t it gorgeous?" he asked her at last. She looked up, the briefest flick of her eyes, said "yeah," and continued to talk about the show. She was still caught in the wonder of the live show she’d just seen, unable to catch a glimpse of the sublime Scott had caught in the lights above them.
When I was fifteen my best friend, Emma Winley, and I would sometimes lie down in the middle of her floor to listen to music, closing our eyes, and then at the end of each song talking about what we saw. I’d lose myself in the lyrics, imagine who those people were, what was happening to them in that slice of life covered by the lyrics of the song, what happened afterwards. Emma was much more impressionistic, caught in the rhythms and melodies, hardly hearing the words at all. We never saw the same thing and it made us giggly happy.
Another friend of mine, Rebecca
Skloot, recently had a lovely
article in the Times about a town in West Virginia
where she often goes to write. Here’s what she says about her favourite
restaurant in town:
"To call Baristas a restaurant would be a serious understatement. It is a restaurant, but it’s also a barbershop. And a coffeehouse. And, of course, a massage parlor. . . . You can eat in the basement pub, with its low oak ceiling and stone walls. You can eat on the patio overlooking the Ohio River, in the garden next to the hibiscus plants or in the café surrounded by walls of local art. You can get a haircut or a bona fide Swedish massage while you wait, then sit at a table covered in quotes from Camus or Malcom X."
According to Rebecca the food there is wonderful, made from all
local, fresh ingredients. The Baristas’ hamburger is the best she
has ever eaten. But the most popular restaurant in town is a Bob
Evans. There are 576 Bob Evanses in 21 states across the USA and
they all look exactly the same with identical menus and identical
methods of serving the food. The meal you have at the Bob Evans
in New Martinsville, West Virginia is exactly the same meal you’d
have in "Orlando, St Louis or Baltimore."
Rebecca ate at the New Martinsville Bob Evans several times, sampling a variety of dishes and being underwhelmed by them all. She simply didn’t get it. After talking to some of the folks who loved it so, she started to get an inkling. They valued its lack of surprises, its sameness. After a few days she retreated back to Baristas wondering what made her a Baristas person and the others pure Bob Evans?
I’m all for different perspectives, different ways of living, of seeing the world. One of the glories of being in other places is seeing how varied the world is. I’m so relieved Buenos Aires isn’t exactly like Sydney. That there are places where people don’t know who Elvis is. Spending time in the US I am thrilled every time I discover pop cultural memories the yankees have that I don’t. Growing up in Australia I always thought I knew all about the USA, I could name all the states, knew a tonne about its music and movies and literature, but I didn’t, not even close. I still don’t really know this country, I probably never will. That makes me happy.
But the gulfs. All those Bob Evans people and Baristas people living in the same towns, same cities, sometimes shopping in the same stores, or going to the same churches, who can’t talk to each other, or if they do, can’t make any sense of what the other says. Whose different worlds are so completely incompatible there’s no room for each other in them. That makes me sad.
New York City, 3 November 2004
(Updated: 18 Jan 06 to correct factual errors. Thanks, JKC for pointing them out.)