Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nonfiction | Southern Yankee minds think alike


A long time ago, I was taken in by a web ad and put Jane Borden’s I Totally Meant to Do That on my ‘to-read’ list, because it just sounded too perfect. Borden grew up a debutante in North Carolina and moved to New York after college, which is essentially my life, minus the extremes of debutante (I went to public school) and hipster (yeah, I live in Brooklyn, but I don’t own Oxfords).

This book is essentially my brain on paper. It’s a collection of little observations that Jane has made on the on the idiosyncrasies of city-living that only someone from the South would spend the time noticing and analyzing. To so many of her experiences, I just had to say: Yes. Been there. Experiences like:

  • Stopping a stranger after picking up something they dropped, only to realize the person was, in fact, littering, and your help is interpreted as sarcasm. My first week in New York, I stopped a woman at the bank who dropped a dollar. Her response? “Pft, it’s only a dollar.”
  • Being yelled at or called a profanity by a stranger after the smallest of encounters. Ugh, nothing starts your day off worse than being yelled at by a stranger at 8:30am on the subway for something inconsequential. And I end up crying every time. WHY SO RUDE???

And how, inevitably, New York has its own reasons for its behavior. Like how:

  • Walking the streets is an art form (one on which I pride myself for having mastered), weaving in and out of people, avoiding stationary objects. Because the key is just to watch the people around you.
  • People project no sense of privacy, because, “Wherever New Yorkers are, they feel at home. What tourists regard as exhibitionism, locals herald as the inalienable right to treat the city like a bedroom.” I think it is often gross and inappropriate. DO NOT CLIP YOUR NAILS ON THE SUBWAY.
  • There’s no rule of etiquette because “manners require social interaction while New Yorkers are bred for anonymity, naturally selected to blend in and go unnoticed. Those who accidentally stand out get mugged. Or, worse, end up on reality-TV prank shows.” No joke, this is often my worst fear. That I will end up on YouTube because of something I did and didn’t even realize I was doing.

And how New York has this constant buzz of noise that you don’t even notice until you escape it completely and you realize that actually drives you crazy. And all the stimuli bombarding you constantly becomes commonplace until one day you suddenly see it clearly and it also drives you crazy. And utterly EXHAUSTS you.

After approximately 3.25 years in the city, I even made a decision similar to Jane Borden and decided to be a Southerner living in New York rather than a New Yorker from the South. And since, I’ve done what she did, trying to “import the South” with pictures, posters, recipes, bringing back “y’all” to my lexicon, probably much to the annoyance of my friends and loved ones in New York.

I read this book when I was home for Christmas, and I think I bawled in my bed at about 1:30 in the morning as I finished it, because of the ending which was just so on point that it’s not even worth paraphrasing.

“I thought I was choosing between between two geographical locations, between two ways of life. But that’s not true. North Carolina isn’t a lifestyle; it’s my family…New Yorkers participate in one another’s most intimate moments, and I want to share in them all…But by definition, these relationships could never be more than snippets—how can I justify choosing strangers over my family?…I now have three nephews and a niece who are growing up without me, know me as the aunt who flies in and out…I have wisdom to share, and I don’t want to do so over the phone or through the mail.”

Ok, for me, it is somewhat the lifestyle of geographic locations, but for the most point, she gets me. I’m not sure people who have not made the South to North move would fully get everything Borden says (get in that “OMG, YES, SO TRUE!” kind of way), but it’s funny enough to be enjoyed nonetheless. It was just too eerily similar to my life that I absolutely loved it—similar even down to the same dive bar I live next door to in Brooklyn, and Southern women’s fear of gypsies who will enter your unlocked house while you’re outside gardening (something I was raised to fear).


steph_h said…

I just realized the joys of discovering a memoir that you feel was written exactly for you. In my case it was Jeanette Winterson's new book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and the parallels between her life and my own are much more disparate (I am not adopted nor am I a lesbian) and yet I felt there were certain fundamental experiences and truths that she expressed that I felt reverberate deep within me. Can't remember the last time a book resonated so deeply with me. It's really like feeling as though you've made a new friend, isn't it?

Joy Weese Moll said…

I also love memoirs that really connect with my life — and how much we can learn from them.

Sometime soon I want to read a book I've heard about, about what makes New York, New York: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. Living in Missouri, New York is endlessly fascinating but very much in a "nice to visit, but wouldn't want to live there" fashion.

I hopped over here from Aarti's blog BookLust because you were talking to her about nonfiction. I'd like to invite you to join the Bloggers' Alliance for Nonfiction Devotees. I'm hosting our discussion this month: <a href=">Books to Support Goals and Resolutions — A question for the BAND</a>.

Joy Weese Moll said…

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