This morning I crossed paths with the elderly Indian gentleman I see most mornings on my way to work. We went through our usual routine: I smile and say good morning, and he smiles back, performs an elegant flourish with his hand, and responds, “and a very good day to you.”
Not only is his greeting unique, the fact that I willingly interact with a stranger is itself exceedingly rare. Whenever I hear that Will Rogers quote, “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet,” I think, “That simple-minded Okie clearly didn’t live in New York.” I figured that out the first year I lived here.
A girl in college once told me she thought that people who liked the same bands could probably be friends. Her sentiment struck me as terribly naïve, but it’s taken me two decades to question my own assumption that people who like the same books share a sensibility.
Last week my wife and I went to see the formidable Barbara Ehrenreich speak at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. You might know Ehrenreich from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, her much-celebrated and controversial book about the ordeals of blue-collar workers, but I love her for Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, in which she stomps all over our country’s favorite panacea. In short, Ehrenreich’s a bad-ass. Which is why I was so surprised by the kind of people who made up her audience.
The whole thing started off badly. I forgot that Fran Lebowitz had rescheduled her talk at BAM when I scheduled a visit to my parents, so Sabine had to give away my ticket to a friend. The day of departure I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and arrived at the airport an hour and a half early. Then as I stood on the security line half asleep I overheard three college bros behind me talk loudly about beginning their day with a beer in that unmistakable douchey accent of theirs. I was on my way back to Texas.
As I’m sweeping the leaves in front of our house I see a mother and her toddler heading in my direction. The child is kicking through the piles of leaves in front of the other houses, but surely she’ll stop him when they get to me. The mother and I lock eyes as the kid kicks my neighbor’s leaves onto my just-swept sidewalk. “I’m sorry, that’s probably not helpful,” she says, making no attempt to stop him. I guess there simply was no conceivable way to avoid this.
A couple of weeks ago I received a letter summoning me to jury duty. I looked at it askance partly because I have one bad eye, partly because when I first lived in Queens in the early 2000s I ignored several of these, so I’ve been afraid of getting arrested for contempt of court ever since.
I’m a pretty negative guy. A total hater. I hate so many types of people that I can’t name them all. They include spitters, lip-smackers, and mouth-breathers; high-fivers, back-slappers, and fake-punchers; Republicans, evangelicals, and frat boys; people who stand at escalators and moving sidewalks, and those who press the elevator button more than once; adults who mistreat children, and, paradoxically, children themselves. And that’s just a start.
What fresh hell is this?
But I’m not all hate. I also love some people. Number one: other haters. Not just any haters, though. You’ll never see me at a Tea Party rally, no matter how desperately I might want to try on a three-cornered hat. Their hatred is unfair, and just as unforgivably, it’s boring. And Tea Partiers can’t spell, achieving a trifecta that hoists them to the top of the list of people I hate. Give me interesting haters, like Fran Lebowitz, who hates people who cross their sevens, Mark E. Smith, who hates Kojak (and calls him “a twat”), or Nabokov, who hated writers who used the phrase “the moment of truth.”
It’s Columbus Day, and a few doors down our neighbors are whooping it up. Or maybe they’re fighting, I can’t really tell. That’s because to an introvert like me, even the friendliest celebrations imply a threat. Every after-work party is a toast away from turning into a Beer Hall Putsch.
All my life I’ve struggled with introversion. I’ve never felt comfortable in groups, and growing up in Mexico I preferred to read comic books over partaking in games of soccer or attempting the violent overthrow of the government. While it was difficult to make friends, being by myself led me to develop a love of reading and a talent for drawing. I was also exposed to a lot of colorful terms for “homosexual” from my non-introverted classmates.