Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Don’t Touch Me!

You Can Take the Girl Out of New York....

© 2010 Leighann Lord

When I was a junior in high school, I got an opportunity to do a Summer program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It was an amazing experience getting to meet kids from all over the United States with different styles, habits and accents. It was easy to tell the Southern kids because of their drawl. The Midwestern kids said pop instead of soda. And I learned that we New Yorkers have our tells too. We talk fast, we’re in a hurry and we’re constantly looking at our watches. Apparently we live at light speed.

Since then I’ve traveled extensively and I’d like to think I’ve toned down my overt New Yorkiness. I don’t view unsolicited cordial greetings from strangers with suspicion. I understand that the rest of the planet doesn’t power through its to do list like it’s an Olympic sport. But we New Yorkers still stand out. Our noses are perpetually glued to our gadgets du jour. We’re still not big on idle chit chat. We wear a lot of black as if to be ready for an impromptu funeral. And we have very clear ideas about personal space.

New York City is big and congested. We’re not as bad as Tokyo, but it gets tight on the subway during rush hour. We tolerate this invasion of our personal space by a temporarily redefining it. This allows us to be crushed together for a finite amount of time with the understanding that the moment extra space is available we will make use of it by moving as far away from each as we possibly can.

This is why New Yorkers are reluctant to car pool. (Contrary to a popular stereotype New Yorkers do have cars, particularly those of us who live in the outer boroughs or Long Island.) Your car is both an extension of and protection for your personal space. Seating is limited, the guest list is tight and it’s by invitation only. In my car I am queen controlling the temperature, the radio and the route.

It honestly never occurred to me that my idea of personal space could be regional.

I was recently working on a cruise ship out of Miami. With a few hours in port I and another comedian left the ship and went to the near by Bayside Marketplace. As I was window shopping, I walked past a man in front of a table selling massagers in the shape of a vibrating hand. (I shit you not, a vibrating hand.) He mistakenly thought the best way to make a sale was to reach out and touch me with it.

I saw it happening in slow motion. My inner New Yorker instantly became my outer New Yorker. I leaned away from him, "Matrix" style, and said, "Don’t touch me!" The pushy salesman said — to my back, because I never stopped moving — "Somebody, got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning."

That stopped me. I suddenly felt like Marty McFly in "Back to the Future" and this Troglodyte had just called me chicken. I had to defend myself. I turned around and said to him, "No, I woke up just fine. What you did is a violation." He seemed truly surprised by both my reaction and my reply, but he was way out of bounds. Accidental touch among strangers is tolerable. Deliberate touch is an act of aggression.

Not 15 minutes later a young woman wanted me to come to her makeup table, so she could show me what amazing things her mineral cosmetics could do for me. She reached out to grab my arm, and I quickly pulled back out of her reach. She had the nerve to look stunned and hurt. I turned to the other comic I was walking with, who happened to be from Florida, and said,
"What’s with all the touching?"
"I guess we’re friendlier here,"
he said.
"But I don’t know these people!"
How many fewer missing persons would Florida have if it wasn’t so "friendly"? Stranger danger isn’t just for kids.

Upon cooler reflection (getting the hell out of Miami) I still don’t think I’m wrong, but I will concede that I may be operating under a different set of social rules. Where I come from touching sans proper introduction is a no-no. You don’t assume a familiarity you don’t have. I think it’s safer and more respectful no matter what region you’re from, to keep your hands – vibrating or otherwise – to yourself.

Leighann Lord is a stand-up comedian, who's style is best described as "Thinking Cap Comedy." If comedy were music, she'd be Jazz. She's George Carlin if he'd been born a Black Woman. Check out her upcoming shows @ www.VeryFunnyLady.com. Join her on FaceBook. Follow her on Twitter.

1 comment:

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