She was young, I’d guess mid-twenties. She had a sleeve of multi-colored tattoos on both arms. She was pretty. She was nice.
She stood behind the New York City deli counter, slicing salami, making sandwiches. She had a line 16 miles long, snaking outward into the frenetic streets of The City So Nice They Named it Twice.
Some of her patrons were very “particular” about their orders. Although where I come from, we would not call these people “particular.” We would call these people “fussy.” But hey. When in Rome.
The girl took it on the chin. She replied to each “particular” customer by smiling and batting her eyes.
I detected a slight drawl in her voice. I wouldn’t have noticed this in any other city. But in New York, you notice drawls.
It was my turn. I ordered the cheapest sandwich available, an item that cost about as much as an average Harvard doctoral semester.
She began making my sandwich. “Where are you from?” she asked.
A look of wistfulness came over her face. “Birmingham,” she said. “I’m from Birmingham. I was born there.”
“And it just got smaller.”
The man behind me in line was not happy about this casual conversation between myself and our delicatessen professional. He began clearing his throat loudly.
New Yorkers, I have read, do not like idle chit-chat. I read this in an official guidebook. The guidebook stated: “New Yorkers do not like superficial conversation, eye contact, small animals, children, old people, or anyone who talks slow.”
The man in line behind me cleared his throat loudly again. He was sending a clear message.
“Can we speed this up?” the man actually said aloud. Then he made a “let’s get the ball rolling” gesture.
I was horrified. In Birmingham, this man would have already been in the backseat of a Jefferson County Crown Victoria.
The young woman merely smiled. She looked at me and whispered. “Bless.”
I asked what a Birminghamite is doing in New York, and did she need help coming up with ransom money.
“Oh, it’s not like that. This city’s a great place. Just wait. You’ll fall in love with it.”
The man cleared his throat again and stared me down. I was having a difficult time conjuring up feelings of romance for this city.
“You come to this town,” she explained, “and at first, you’re stressed. Everyone’s always rushing, the pace never quits. New York City is the only place in the world where you can get deliberately run down by a pedestrian on the sidewalk.”
“Sounds lovely,” said I.
“When I first moved here, I cried every night. I was ready to go home. Nobody talked like me. It took me two weeks to realize the word ‘chair’ only had one syllable.”
I asked why she relocated.
“Because my mom was from here originally. Mom was Greek, she died when I was three. I don’t even remember what she looked like. So I came here to find her.”
The young woman has been living here for six years. I asked whether she had found her mother yet.
She smiled. “I have. I’ve rediscovered her in this city. I hang out with my mom’s relatives every day in Jersey City. I live in the same neighborhood Mom grew up in. I’ve seen the apartment where my mom lived as a girl. I can feel her whenever I’m here.”
She handed me my sandwich. The man behind me was annoyed. He wore a face that looked like he’d just sucked on a car battery.
And truthfully, I don’t blame him. My idle chit-chat had caused this man to wait a very long time. Almost 90 whole seconds.
Before I left, the young woman explained the secret to New York City.
“Eventually, you get past the anxiety of New York, and you realize this place is beautiful because you’re totally anonymous here. You just float around, living your life, and everyone keeps to themselves. It’s very calming, being one of the crowd. It’s nice being invisible.”
I hate to disappoint you, Anna. But you’re not invisible.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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