Fifteen years ago, I knew that moving to the Midwest would be a kind of culture shock. I knew it because I googled “Regional Food of Michigan” and the first thing that came up was “cereal.” But I didn’t know then what I know now, that Midwestern Nice was going to be the real shock.
I always felt shy growing up on Long Island. Part of that shyness was that I was an outsider from the start. We started our lives as a family in Palo Alto, Calif., where I was born at Stanford University Medical Center. We relocated to Oakland for my father’s brief stint in the Navy, and then arrived in Iowa around 1978, where my father briefly dipped his toe in academia and then pulled it right out. In fall of 1980, when I was five years old, my parents gave me a cool necklace that said “New Kid on the Block.” This necklace pre-dated the boy band my cousin would come to adore so much, she affixed their photos to her bedroom ceiling fan. It was a gift that was a promise of an identity yet to come. In January of 1981, my family moved from Iowa City, Iowa, to Hewlett, N.Y..
This could have been a homecoming, as my dad was born and bred in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, but he’d been away for enough time to know that the meshuggeneh of New York was not his to hold. His beloved Dodgers had left Brooklyn in 1957, and there was little that held an allure for him except proximity to family. My mother spent her formative years in Ontario, Canada, the daughter of a blue-collar American ex-pat and his British war bride. She had packed her bags as soon as she had her nursing certificate in hand, and she made her way to San Francisco in 1971 to start her own life. She loved the arts scene and the retail that New York had to offer, but she was cautious about the “glitziatas” who traipsed the Foodtown aisles in their Hotdogger jogging suits and balked at her brood of four children (so many!).
My parents didn’t seem to make any special effort to remind me that my seed had been planted in other soil, but the humid harbor breezes, the private beach clubs, and traffic stalled parkways never seemed like mine. Ten years after I was that New Kid on the Block, my friends still remembered that I was from Iowa. Remembered that my mom was from Canada. Reminded me, albeit with love, that I was just on the periphery, looking in. Throughout my childhood I was often quiet, shy, and afraid. It was easy to shrink away from the hot tempers, brazen entitlement, and straight up assholery that made a home in the New York ‘burbs.
Consider this: an unhappy customer waiting at JFK airport feels dissatisfied with the service. Rather than asking for a manager, the woman, well dressed, zaftig, starts shouting, “I’m going to call Channel 2 News! I’m going to call Channel 2 News!” Observing this fiasco, I cowered behind my parents’ super-sized suitcase, wishing the scene would pass.
Consider this: Bellying up to the counter at my childhood deli, The Woodro, an elderly woman orders a half a pound of sliced roast beef. “Wait,” she cries, while the deli-man is mid-slice. “Wait! Is it FRESH?!?!?” “Is it FRESH?” was a punchline for my siblings, used to make fun of yentes who thought they could get something better, fresher, by asking questions about quality.
Consider this: When another child took my sister’s jacket home from the playground, my father went to the kid’s house to reclaim the jacket. Rather than a simple exchange, my dad encountered a smack down. The kid’s father said he wasn’t going to give my dad the jacket (it had my sister’s name on it), and then he pushed my dad down. The real shocker was that my mild mannered father hauled back and knocked the guy’s glasses off, somehow reclaimed the jacket, and made it home relatively unscathed. “Dad got in a fight!” we all crowed.
It’s not that New Yorkers don’t know how to be polite. They know the magic words. They even use them. But if you’ve never heard a New York native scream-hiss the words “EXCUSE ME!” while trying to get through the crowded hallways of the high school on back to school night, you haven’t lived.
It’s not just the adults who do whatever the hell they want.
Consider this: Waiting in line, fourteen deep, at my local Lohmann’s with my mother and grandmother, we look down to see a small child taking a dive in my grandmother’s pocketbook. Rather than swiftly removing the pint-sized pickpocket, his mother starts screaming at her husband. “YOSSI!!! YOSSI!!!! DO YOU SEE WHAT YOUR SON IS DOING?” We all stood frozen, waiting for Yossi or Yossi’s wife to make a move. Nothing. Slowly, the kid extracted his arm from my grandmother’s purse and slunk back to his mother, who shot us a look like we were Fagen, conspiring to hook her young one into a life of crime.
The thing is, when you’re in New York, you never have to wonder, “Did that offend?” Oh, you know if you’ve offended someone. Like the time my dad cut off someone in midtown traffic and the guy chased us down the street, honking, cursing, and flipping the bird for blocks. New Yorkers, we don’t hide our feelings.
When someone tells you to pick a card, any card, at least you know there are only fifty-two possibilities. When my husband went on the job market, he applied to over one hundred jobs. And he was offered two positions. The first position was at a school in southern Indiana. We went to visit the town, which had nothing to boast about except meth mouth and corn fields. The only other Jew in the vicinity was in his seventies and taught math.
“How is it?” my mother inquired.
“Dreadful,” was my answer.
So the job in Michigan looked very rosy indeed, especially after we learned that our town had two, two! synagogues. I told my husband that I would move anywhere that wasn’t that awful school in Indiana. I told him I didn’t even have to visit. We visited.
We were invited to the home of another Jewish professor, a couple who would eventually become our very best friends. The husband, Mark, was from Queens. I wondered if we had gone to Hebrew School together. He was so familiar to me, I could have cried. His wife and I were fast friends. I was looking forward to moving to Michigan.
My transition to life in the Midwest was punctuated by the birth of my son. Arriving only five weeks after we moved to town, caring for a newborn kept me at home, by myself. I did take my daughter to preschool, but the only other people I met there were also Jews, so it took some time, years even, before I understood what the Midwest was really about.
At first, I thought I “got it.” I tried that salad with grapes and sour cream. I noticed how obsessed everyone was with the chicken and noodles in Frankenmuth. I heard how people pronounced the word bagels (BAG-uls—oy). But I didn’t get it.
Consider this: Waiting in line at the fabric counter at Joann Fabric. My newborn strapped to my chest, my three year old threatening to topple the cart stacked precariously with bolts of calico and novelty prints. There are at least four women waiting to be helped, and yet, there’s no one behind the counter, despite the fact that I’ve seen at least eight employees skulking the aisles, rearranging glue guns and fluffing the faux-angora wool. There is, however, a bell, a tiny bell, and it sits atop a hand written sign taped to the counter that reads: Ring for Service.
I’m looking at the bell.
No one else is looking at the bell. Everyone else lingers close to the counter, but not too close, so they could easily be waiting for service or browsing the McCormick halloween costume patterns. I try to make eye contact with the other women. The grandmother with the homeschool length hair looks away. The fancy lady in athleisure wear checks her phone. Another woman with kids about my kids’ ages ignores her whining kids and eats their goldfish. My own baby shifted his weight and wound his sweaty little hands in my wild hair, and I decided to take action.
I stepped towards the bell and rang it. Not once, not twice, but three distinct rings. I even had the gall to audibly say, “Hello?” The other customers scattered. I had obviously made a grievous faux-pas.
The pattern continued.
I watched employees and customers alike break into a sweat if I asked, “Excuse me?” at the returns desk. I saw a woman actually grow pale when I confronted the clerk at the deli who had shut down the cheese slicer even though it said the deli was open for another thirty minutes. I’ve seen people scatter like so many ants fleeing an imperiled ant hill if I asked someone else’s child on the playground, “Where’s your mommy?”. Asking for accountability is not part of Midwestern Nice. It is decidedly not nice.
I’ve seen a lot of pursed lips, heard a lot of soft sighs, felt the breeze of being left behind in the dust. Because I might have been a shy child, but as an adult I’m not afraid to speak out.
And I got used to it. Enjoyed it, even. I’ve always had a low tolerance for people who can’t speak up for themselves, and if my frankness sent them running, then bye, bye.
The longer I lived in Grand Rapids, the more dislocated I felt. I had never felt like a true New Yorker. Sure, I liked bagel brunches and designer discount shopping, but I wasn’t like New York-New York. But I certainly wasn’t Midwestern. And if I only had those two choices (despite having lived in North Carolina for eight years in between New York and the Midwest, I knew I could never call the south home), I would go with New York every time. And yet, returning to New York, aside from the fabulous food and shopping, started to feel stranger and stranger as the years passed.
Consider this: Back home for a visit, we’re in a very long line at Bagel Boss in the Peninsula Shopping Center (fondly known as Penn Mill Mall to those who know). I’m now the mother to three little children. This time, I have my newborn daughter in the baby carrier. My toddler son is strapped in the stroller for his own safety, and my six year old is ogling the rainbow cookies and frosted brownies at the front of the counter. The line is long enough that I’m backed up to one of the dining tables. I’m laden with children, and diaper bags, and pocketbooks, and I backed up far enough to jostle the table.
“Hey!” a man shouted at me. Or at least it seemed like he was shouting. It was probably just his baseline. “Hey, give us some space here!”
I was shocked. Rocked to my core. Shook. The kind of a reaction that was just a blip in the narrative of my childhood now felt mean. It felt rude. It felt oversized and out of proportion.
Holy shit. I thought, sweat dripping from my hairline. I’m not used to this any more.
Had the same thing happened in the Midwest, the reaction would have been completely different. Even if we had bagel shops in 2009, had I backed into someone’s table, they would be more likely to apologize to me. A nice older lady might have offered to have me put my things down. Everyone would have remained calm.
“I feel like I’m not a New Yorker anymore,” I told my husband.
“Honey,” he said, “Say ‘dog’” I said it.
“Say ‘chocolate’” I said it.
“Say ‘coffee’” Again, I said it.
“I heard ‘dawg,” he confirmed. “Still a New Yorker.”
But I didn’t feel like it. Not in New York anyway. I felt like a bumpkin. A country girl. I remembered with clarity the first time I got off the school bus back in January of 1981. I remembered slowly turning in a circle, straining to recognize something, anything, that would remind me that I was home. The evergreen shrubs, the polished pebbled landscaping, the 1960s clapboard split level houses all looked the same. I was unmoored. This was not my place, my home, and although I would live in that place for twelve years, and then visit it with frequency for another twenty after that, I didn’t belong.
On the other hand, in the Midwest I feel like more of a Long Island Rail Road Riding, chocolate babka eating, strident big mouth than ever. In the Midwest, I am the New York girl that I never was when I was living in Hewlett.
Surrounded by the conflict averse, I long for someone to just lose their cool. To shout, “HEY!” To call me a bitch, to my face. To say, out loud, anything honest at all.
This year marks the tipping point, the point at which I have lived longer in the Midwest than I did in New York. I’m shocked, shook, disarmed by this fact. And yet, I can’t bring myself to say it, that I’m “from” Grand Rapids. I suspect that I’ll never be able to say it, even to strangers, because it’s not my truth. I suspect that a part of me will always be that little girl just off the school bus, turning around to find anything at all that looks familiar, only to find that I don’t belong here either.
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