“But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same [stuff] over there that we got here, but it’s just…it’s just, there it’s a little different.” – Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction.
Unlike 85 percent of my Facebook feed, I didn’t study abroad in Europe, South America, East Asia or Antarctica this past semester. Instead, I jumped on a different kind of escape from South Bend; I took a leave of absence for the spring semester to intern in New York City. As much as my classmates would like to tell me, “It’s not the same, it’s just not. You just don’t get it until you’ve lived in London,” for me, New York City may as well have been a foreign country. In my native state, Kansas, “Aw shucks, mister,” can land you a night in jail for public indecency in some counties. New York, it turns out, has different rules.
The first time I stepped foot in New York City was for an interview for the internship; the second was moving into Lower East Side Manhattan at the end of the December for a five-month stretch of culture shock.
But the Brave New World that is New York didn’t hit me until I got back to South Bend for the summer. I’ve now been back at Notre Dame for a little over a month, and it put some retroactive perspective on just how crazy my small snapshot into big city life really was.
I went to McDonald’s last week for lunch; I spent $3 and change and got a full meal. Same meal in New York: eleventy million dollars. Exaggeration, certainly, but one of the things that always caught my eye when I forewent the independent sandwich shops and hummus hole-in-the-walls (where eleventy million trillion dollars for a half sandwich is not that much of an exaggeration) for the good old-fashioned McDonald’s was the ridiculous prices.
For instance, take the Dollar Menu, a staple for anyone too lazy to go to a grocery store but who still wants to eat dinner. In most parts of the country, the Dollar Menu offers a variety of options for, believe it or not, a dollar. In New York, it’s $1.79 a pop. And those 79 cents add up when you’re paying in nickels and pennies you found on the floor behind your desk.
Then there are the people. Much is made in the Midwest about New Yorkers and their rudeness and their generally not being as nice as Midwesterners. I disagree; I found the people to be pretty decent. What I did find, though, was that their words didn’t always match up with what they meant.
During one of my first weekends in New York, I went to a library to get a library card. When I finally got to the front of the line at the help desk, I realized I didn’t have any identification that proved I lived in New York.
I think the lady helping me realized this before I did, because about three words into my explanation she said, “I’m sorry sir, but if you don’t have ID I can’t help you. Have a nice day!” I know that reads polite, but what she translated to me via body language and tone was, “Get your face out of my face you bumbling idiot,” but in, like, a polite way.
Thoroughly intimidated, I went to a different floor and talked to a different library employee. After I explained my situation and what the other worker had said, she cocked an eyebrow.
“Was it that b**** with the gray hair? That lazy piece of f****** s***. Just kidding, love her. What the f*** do you need?” she asked me.
Now, that one might sound pretty bad, but what she actually meant was, “Oh yeah, she’s really busy so that’s understandable, but I’d love to help you. What can I do for you?” I didn’t actually get a card, but she did everything she could to help me out and couldn’t have been nicer about it despite swearing like a sailor.
When I got to South Bend for the summer, I went to the library here to get a library card, in part just to see the difference in the two experiences. I went to the help desk, explained what I was looking for, and the lady said, “Sure, I can help you out!” and what she meant was “Sure, I can help you out!” People in both places are overall pretty nice, it’s just a little different approach.
Finally, there’s the transportation. Even for someone who loves driving, I found the subway system in New York to be one of the greatest things I’ve ever encountered. You mean I can get from place to place all over the city in each of the boroughs in relatively short amounts of time and don’t have to struggle through traffic? On top that, personal interaction, even eye contact, is thoroughly discouraged? Sign me up.
The first time I got on an uncrowded train and sat down, and the girl sitting three or so seats down from me instinctively stood up and walked farther away, I knew I was home. They charged a little over a hundred dollars a month for unlimited service, but I would’ve been willing to pay, like, $115.
Contrast that experience with driving in South Bend; $50 every week or two on gas, little kids shooting fireworks at your tires when you park on the street outside your house, and the accumulation of dozens of “friends” who need rides to campus, the grocery store, the courthouse, whatever. I’ll take the subway seven days a week and six times on Sunday.
Look, don’t get me wrong; I missed South Bend. I got a drink at Brother’s on Eddy Street last weekend for $2. You can’t get a lime wedge in New York for $5. When it was time to leave and come back, I was more than ready. But like my guy Vinny Vega (just to be clear, he’s not actually my guy, that’s just an expression; I don’t endorse his decision-making or actions or ill-timed bathroom visits), I love the little differences, and I can’t wait to go back and get cursed at profusely in the nicest way possible.
Kevin Noonan is this magazine’s summer intern.