In Great Falls, Montana it doesn’t matter if you’re on public assistance or if you own a private jet: everyone shops at the local supermarkets. Geography is the great equalizer: it’s either Smith's...or starve—even Letterman, when he visits his Montana cabin, can fly in only so much Dean & Deluca (which, come to think of it, might explain his brief visits AND the bear in the kitchen). Though folks in Great Falls all stand in the same grocery line, it’s not as though we don’t have a pecking order, especially if your last name is ‘Weaselhead’ or ‘Runs at Night’. Sales clerks everywhere are guilty of ethnic profiling, though no one in Manhattan or Montana turns away a cash sale. This explains the indulgent, somewhat condescending smile I got today in a Persian market.
Another class symbol is less important in my hometown: the car. There are no old automobiles in Manhattan: I suspect they force them to pull over and remain in Jersey where they belong. In Great Falls, my husband drives a 1992 Dodge Spirit with a peeling hood and a Hooters sticker. It’s a Montana badge of courage to keep an old horse in power. In New York, I count limos on the two-minute walk to Starbucks; in Great Falls, I hoof it two miles to get to our solitary Starbucks, and count cars with a right front quarter panel held on by duct tape and Bondo (less than three and my companion pays for my mocha).
Back home there are many measures of a man: where he lives, what he drives, the veracity of his ex-wives, how many times he’s seen gambling his paycheck at The Prospector. You don’t want to judge too quickly: you’re bound to run into him again, and when it happens, you might have a flat tire or need a beer. Heck, in Montana it takes ten seconds just to see if whatever you're looking at is fit to shoot for dinner. Sadly, every hunting season, mistakes are made. In Manhattan, partner, you got two seconds to size someone up.
In the City, we are all extras in the movies of other people’s lives. Without a supporting role—or at least an actor’s union card to prove your worth in my story—you got two seconds, one chance. Instead of rutted rural roads, here the subway pitches and yaws, ta thump, in unison with sharp glances. The black guy with papaya fists holds the rail and stares back hard, one-two. the tiny lady in the torn red hat tucks her shopping bag tighter between her legs, one-two, as if she’s worried I might reach across and snatch whatever smells inside. The greasy kid bopping to his iPod turns his head without turning his body, horror-film style. One-two.
Back in Montana, all these folks would all merit a good stare. On the subway, instead of offending anyone, I savor my two seconds, like a crime victim who might be forced to i.d. the perp at a later date. I adore the anonymity of The City. If I want to tease my hair, put on a PETA t-shirt and roller blade backwards in Central Park whistling Verdi, no one would care. If I did any two of those things at home, someone would call my mother…and I’m over fifty.
Because New Yorkers’ personal space is so small, details loom large. Bags, watches, hairstyles and such—any one of these might confuse another member of your tribe. Back home it’s hard to determine gender, let alone social status in our snow gear…and though we might not know a Rolex from a Timex, we know the O’Days had a big spread east of town, and the lady who sold the shoe store had a brother at the State Pen. Some New York tribes are instantly recognizable: camel coat, wingtips, shifty glances: financial district. Three inch Manolos and printed tights, Diet Coke, student at the FIT. Long curled sideburns, black hat, glasses: not a Lost Tribe, anyway.
The grey grandeur of it all! There is something oddly reassuring about big buildings, new faces and the rolling smells of the City. Skyscrapers bestow upon me the kind of calm that I imagine a New Yorker might get from Glacier Park. Manhattan, you are my muse. I’ve seen those Discovery Channel mini-series where suspicious tribes accept anemic strangers to their clans in the interest of science. Is there anyone in Manhattan who’ll trade an old Dodge for a Metro pass, pour me into the native costume (black Prada), and feed me little black fish eggs while I pretend to make a face for the camera? I have a saddle back home…from what I could tell in a two second glance, it looks like it’ll sit that City ass of yours just fine.