And where I’m from, cats tend to be asocial and aloof creatures, whose affection must be earned through unclear rules, and who can shift from purring cuddliness to hissy scratchiness without warning. In New York, cats — particularly the mousers in our ubiquitous bodegas (elsewhere known as delis, convenience stores, and cornershops) — are friendly to a puppy-like fault. The picture above is of Cupcake and me, at a bodega on First Avenue. Cupcake jumps on customers’ shoulders, and I have halfmoon-shaped perforations on much of my outerwear to prove it.
Check out this faux Nature Channel documentary for more on felinus bodegus. What’s truly incredible to me is how New Yorkers have bred out cats’ roaming instinct. Whereas suburban cats spend their days prowling the streets, here they stop in their tracks at the bodega doorway.
For some years, I spent chunks of my summers in San Francisco, gladly exchanging NYC’s cruel humidity for their cool fog. On either end of the junket, I had to recalibrate my social etiquette a bit. In San Francisco, I had to remind myself that a nice stranger wasn’t necessarily working an angle. Back in NYC, I needed to remember that “get outta my way” might mean “pardon me, my good man.”
There’s a quote from a fake speech by my childhood literary idol Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel”
I’ve felt similarly topsy-turvy in my travels abroad. My European friends were perplexed by how much Americans smile, questioning the sincerity of this toothy affect. “How are you” and “Let’s do lunch” are throwaway lines here; elsewhere, people assume a genuine interest in one’s well-being, and an invitation to an actual meal.
And then there are greetings: handshake, hug, cheek kiss (how many?), air kiss, hand kiss, bowing, hand over heart — and which ones for which gender? I did some work in Argentina, where I endured daily gauntlets of cheek kisses from colleagues just for returning from lunch. An Argentine colleague felt forlorn in Lithuania, where well-intentioned handshakes felt cold and her cheek-kisses were misperceived as flirty.
Sometimes our experiences in other contexts and cultures debunk our stereotypes, and sometimes they reinforce them. It’s all too easy to conflate social etiquette protocols with people’s true intentions and feelings. I’ve referenced this in terms of high and low context cultures here.
One simple thing I’ve learned in New York boils down to this: Make an extra effort to give people the benefit of the doubt. Very close to the gruff or ubercool, surface of many New Yorkers is often a compassionate, empathetic core. We (I count myself as a New Yorker now) may come off as indifferent, cagey suburban cats, but we’re probably just cuddly bodega tabbies.