When I go home, the things people want to know about city life are:
- Why would you want to live there?
- Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get murdered?
- Do you see a lot of homeless people?
With that last one most recently, I blinked, thinking, yes – I probably see at least one homeless person every day, Monday through Friday. I’m not so sure about Lincoln Square on the weekends.
Learning to ignore the urge to give money to every person I see on the street is one the hardest changes I’ve had to make here. You’d run out of money, first of all, but saying “no” is not easy for me most of the time. To keep from getting to that point, you really do have to avoid eye contact with people, which at first went against my every instinct (You must also feign deafness, which is more second-nature to me).
The small, liberal arts school I went to for college encouraged its students to nod, smile, or at the very least acknowledge the presence of every person we passed by on campus. We called it the “Muskie Hello” (go Muskies!). The practice is allegedly even taught in orientation.
City people do not always know what to do with the Muskie Hello. It’s probably because they suspect you’re trying to get their attention so you can mug them. I know, because now that would be my first thought, too.
My old roommate calls the condition in which I must be overly diplomatic about most matters as my being “Ohio Nice”.
Christina: “Stop being so Ohio Nice and just TELL me what kind of goddamn omelet you want.”
While we are still in the Midwest, a region generally considered to be a friendly one, there is a big difference. In southeastern Ohio, where we leave our doors unlocked and, if you’re my dad, the keys in the ignition at the grocery store, our safety is rarely threatened or even thought of. In Chicago, while I have seldom actually felt unsafe, I pay much more attention to my surroundings. I get up in the middle of the night to make sure the back door is secure. I walk on better-lit streets if I’m coming home late at night.
I no longer smile and nod at strangers.
Last Halloween while waiting for a bus, a crazy man commented on my costume. I was with a couple of people, and it took me a minute to realize he was, in fact, crazy — so I responded. By the time this realization struck it was too late.
“You really are new here, aren’t you?” said one of my friends.
At that point I’d been here a year but I still hadn’t learned. Sometimes even now I still can’t resist.