Thursday, October 11, 2007
In Atlanta, New York and Rio, there was always a part of me that wished I could hop on the stool at the counter of the local luncheonette located at some town’s only intersection, hearing the bells tinkling on the door behind me, and in front of me, the short order cook asking, “The usual?”
My happiest years in New York were the last few when I became a “regular” at my local haunts. The host at the Mexican restaurant, when he passed me on the street, would ask, “Where have you guys been,” if my then-husband and I hadn’t been into the restaurant in a while. And I was putty in the hands of the guy at the bodega when he started to call me mami; feminism schmeminism! – I was just thrilled to no longer be anonymous. When the Polish teen at the café got to the point that she was confirming my order – small green tea; two bags, right? – rather than asking for it, I thought I might just stay in Brooklyn forever. It was the traffic and the bright lights that had drawn me to New York, yet I came to like it most when it became quaint.
But nothing could have prepared me for the in-your-face quaintness of Florianópolis.
On the watertaxi, a stranger named Claudia struck up a conversation with me about the advantages and disadvantages of living in a place that’s only accessible by boat.
I said, “Well, I’ve only lived here about –
“Five weeks,” she said, cutting me off.
I couldn’t decide if we had met before, or if, perhaps, she had “a gift.” (I’m getting a strong five weeks vibe from you.)
“Do you live on Servidão Valagão?” I asked her.
“No, I work there. I saw you and the brunette [my roommate Lú] when you first got here. Do you two really go running every day?”
Another time, crossing the street, I ignored a stray “hello, girl!” because – who do I know in this town? Who would be saying hello to me? But when it got closer and louder, I turned.
“I bet you don’t even recognize me!” It was an older man, a grandpa type, with deep blue eyes, and crisp shirt and white pants.
Indeed I did not recognize him, but he sure was happy to see me. “Uhh – ”
“I see you found your way into town.”
It was the ragged fisherman who had told me I should take the bus instead of the watertaxi into town a few days before as I waited on the pier in the wintery darkness of 6am. (I live on the coast of a lagoon where the pavement ends, but I did not know at this time that buses came so far into my neck of the jungle.)
When you get on the watertaxi in town, you have to tell the captain where you plan to get off if he doesn’t already know you and your stop. After a couple weeks, I thought I had seen the whole rotation of captains, and I no longer needed to tell them my stop; as soon as I stepped aboard, they’d raise their eyebrows and say, “Pier 3?” One day, though, there was a captain I was certain I hadn’t seen yet, so as I put my hand in his to step aboard the rocking boat, I opened my mouth to say –
And he cut me off, “Pier 3,” he said without a question mark.
Had I seen him before? Had I spoken to him before? Apparently I’d put my hand in his and told him my stop, but there was no record of this exchange in my memory. New Yorkers do not use valuable headspace to record every face they see. Space – of any kind – is far too precious. We’ve got appointments to catalog. Hell, in New York, I had to plan three weeks out just to sit down to dinner with my dearest friends; I wasn’t going to allocate perfectly good real estate in my brain to the faces of every employee of the MTA. But here, a face is never forgotten.
No one else who boarded the boat told the captain their stop that day. There were about 30 of us, and there are 23 peirs along this coast. And the captain knows the face that goes with every single one of them.
It’s not that I never remembered the faces of the strangers with whom I commuted every day; it’s that in New York, everyone knows that you can’t let on. Only a certified stalker would lean over to the stranger on the bench next to him and say, “How was that pretzel I saw you eating at the corner of 57th and Lex yesterday around 2?” Yet here this is the stuff of daily conversation, and as for stalkers, they are the stuff of Hollywood movies.
And what if you knew that the guy you’d been eyeing on the 6 train for weeks was getting off at the next stop? You can’t get out of the way for him before he even stirs in his seat. Then he’d know that you knew he existed. And that would be embarrassing.
But yesterday, I was sandwiched in by the window on a full bus. The girl seated next to me, on the aisle, was talking the whole way to a guy who was standing in the aisle beside her. As we approached my stop – and I had not yet begun to stand or put my bag on my shoulder – she said to the guy, “Move over. This lady gets off at the next stop.”
I thought that I would ease right into this “simple” life – and in many ways I have, in the “a girl sure could get used to this” kind of a way – after all, I had come here to this so-called “simple” life from the “hard” life, the “mean” streets, so this should be easy, but there is nothing simple about remembering every face, every exchange.
And what’s even more difficult to swallow, is that I can’t do anything without everyone knowing. Claudia knows that I run. The fisherman knows when I’m in town and when I’m not. And every day, one student or another tells me that he saw me entering some supermarket or some café or waiting at some bus stop the day before. It’s not that I resent it. This smalltown life, this being a “regular” wherever I go – there’s not a café in town that doesn’t know how I take my coffee – is just as romantic and quaint as I had always imagined it to be. And most of the time, I love it. It sure has made this big move easier. It’s comforting to know that if I fell off the face of the earth, my absence might be noticed. Often in New York it entered my mind that if something were to happen to me, it might take a week for word to get to my parents. But what I often have a hard time with in the “high visibility” of this island, is that you can never shut it off. It is round-the-clock community – intimacy in fact – 7 days a week. Here, there is not another subway car to slip into if you see someone you know but don’t feel like making chitchat. You’d just draw more attention if you left your sunglasses and headphones on the whole time. It’s antisocial. And please, do not eat on the watertaxi unless you have enough for everyone. Seriously. I’ve seen people get on the boat with what looks like a month’s worth of produce only to give a quarter of it – in oranges, grapes and bananas – to any passenger who accepts. And they all accept.
Brazilians in general are more intimate in my opinion than North Americans. Personal space is smaller; they kiss you when they meet you and call you “flower”, they touch you when they talk to you, and they often repeat your name – in some circumstances, the sweetest word a person can hear.
In New York, in certain “cool” circles, you had to be formally introduced to a person three times before they were allowed to acknowledge that they remembered your name. Here, it’s “Good morning, Sonya,” at the gym, and “Have a good weekend, Sonya,” when I leave. It’s, “Hi, Sonya. The usual, Sonya? How are the classes going, Sonya?”
That repetition of my name – it could pierce through the darkest pair of mirrored lenses, but there is apparently a skeptical city girl in me: I lower my glasses and look out over them before I take them all the way off.
I came back to Brazil because I longed for community and intimacy. I longed for a place where I didn’t have to book dinner with friends three weeks out but could call them in the evening and ask what they were up to tonight. I longed for a place where passersby were not strangers but neighbors who called me by name. Yet these things have been the challenge here. While this intimacy usually feels like just the warm blanket I’ve been shivering for, other times I feel like the covers have been yanked right off of me and my body has been fully exposed. It’s one thing to long for an end to loneliness; it’s quite another to remember how to open up and let someone in.
The other day at the restaurant where I often have lunch, when I went to pay at the counter, I realized I had left my wallet at the table. “That’s okay,” the owner said, “You can pay after you eat. What’s your name?” I told him, and he wrote it on my bill and put it to the side with quite a few others. When I returned to the counter to pay, he pulled my bill out of the stack without asking me to repeat my name. I nodded to show him he had remembered correctly.
“You’re at home now,” he said, “We have your name.”