The Horizons of Hick
It was Saturday night, we were walking down Seventh Avenue to the liquor store, when a girlfriend said, “You have a lot of pride in where you’re from, I’ve really never been friends with anyone like that before.” I think this is the saddest thing anyone has said to me in a long time.
Apparently, compared to most “New Yorkers,” I talk about my hometown a lot. My friend’s comment took me off guard, so I had to step back and think of what I’d just said that precipitated it.
I was talking about how the Utah Jazz as an organization reflect the values and personality of their locale, Salt Lake City – my hometown – maybe more than any other sports franchise in the world. Their coach, Jerry Sloan, doesn’t pamper players and the Jazz organization only brings in personnel that fit Sloan’s highly structured, hard-nosed basketball system. With these tactics the Jazz won more basketball games in the 1990s than any other NBA team. This successful cultural gate keeping mirrors the character of Salt Lake City as much as anything.
Pretty interesting stuff I thought, but all she heard was, ‘Utah. . . blah, blah. . . sports. . . Gee, am I ever from Utah.’
‘New Yorkers’ welcome stories about your hometown as long they end with “Boy, INSERT SMALL TOWN HERE sucks. It sure is great to be in New York where things happen and people are interesting.”
Last spring, I moved into a new apartment in Harlem. A good friend of mine, a young black professor at CUNY, helped me set it up. After giving me a ride home in his Nissan “Z” he said to me, “Duncan, I’d do anything for you. But you’re a hick.” I was offended – and I would have been pissed off if I didn’t know the first part of the statement to be true.
I tried to explain to him that the Salt Lake Valley has 1.5 million people, and the area surrounding it to the North and South, known as the ‘I-15 corridor’—Provo, Salt Lake City, and Ogden—is the tenth most densely populated area of its size in the country [http://www.census.gov/dmd/www/pdf/512popdn.pdf].
“What business do you have calling me a hick?” I asked.
He grew up in Long Island — there isn’t a city of any significance on the whole Peninsula. “My experience growing up was probably a lot more urban than yours,” I told him. Furthermore, before moving to New York I went to graduate school in Toronto, which he knows. The greater Toronto area is the third largest city in North America, and according to the United Nations, the most ethnically and culturally diverse city in the world (yes, more so than NYC).
“Canada?!—Puhhhfff. . .,” he dismissed, rolling his eyes, with his hands at the wheel and his elbow resting on the side of car window.
This is a highly educated man, but he wasn’t hearing any of what I said. Below his shaved head, his brown eyes looked at me and he said deadpan, “Listen – if you stay in New York long enough you might lose your hick-dom.” I raised my eyebrow and told him this was possibly the snobbiest thing anyone has ever said to me, especially from someone who considers himself a friend.
“You just need to accept this: you are a hick. It’s an endearing thing. You are a curious weird hick, but a hick,” was his response.
In New York, my friend’s attitudes are rare for their blunt admission only. If there is one thing that tends to cross all boundaries of this heterogeneous city it is this: New York is the center of the universe. Anything outside the five boroughs is of peripheral significance, if significance at all.
“Where I come from, we don’t calls no ones hicks without cauhs. It ain’t flattar’n, we reckon that there charge is serious. . . y’all,” I told him.
In my humble estimation, snobbery and insecurity go hand in hand in a manner similar to the correlation between ignorance and fear. But that’s just my simple hick brain figuring out this crazy ol’ world. I mean to say, combining the high stress and financial sacrifice necessary for entry with the perception of limitless opportunity and constant rotation of newcomers might breed insecurity and ignorance amongs “New Yorkers.”
A friend mine is a student at a New York law school. One day she told some fellow students she was from Utah, quickly she was asked, “Wow, what is it like to grow up without running water?” The question was sincere. Did her family have to “go out to the well or pump it at the town spout?”
To “New Yorkers” geography is strictly categorized three ways: 1) Urban—represented almost solely in America by New York, and 2) Suburbia—represented positively only by L.A. Everything on the coasts other than New York and L.A. is endless sprawling, boring second category. Everything else between New York and L.A. is the third category: Rural—the ‘fly-over’ farmland filled with pig fuckers who somehow manage without running water (occasionally, there is some awareness of Chicago’s existence, they might have been there once). New York is seen as the pinnacle of all that is urban and multi-cultural. Urban and multi-cultural being uncritically accepted as the only environments available for authentic intellectual stimulation and maturation.
Population and labor force transiency are the death of authentic culture everywhere. When I first arrived here, I found this fact about my New York experience the most shocking: Ninety percent of the people I meet have not grown up in New York City. There is no true youth culture in NYC. Everything is transplanted. Certainly, some people must grow up here, but you don’t run into them in the twenty something college crowd, or even the proto-yuppie-liberal arts school-bonanza of the Lower East side/Park Slope crowds, nor in the future-yuppie, wannabe-punk-trust-fund-hipster of the Williamsburg/East Village variety. Most “New Yorkers,” especially in Manhattan, are from somewhere else. If there is anything consistent about New York’s population, it’s its inconsistency.
Many who move to New York hide from their original locale, no matter what it is. Quickly they dawn the identity of the cosmopolitan ‘New Yorker’. “Yeah. I live in New York,” they proudly pronounce when they go back home, as if it’s the great trump card of all cultural conversations.
By rejecting the culture of their family, upbringing, and most of their experience they do serious damage to any prospects of understanding themselves. There is nothing more pathetic than someone trying to be someone or something they’re not. Reaching for the constantly redefined cool of the minute only leads to disappointment and betrayal.
A vigorous defense of a local identity other than “New York” – which is fleeting at best – is somehow off limits here. This serves to flatten our relationships, forcing the conversation into narrow tunnels of superficiality where the only areas of commonality are meaningless. It stultifies the discussion our relations rely upon, squashing our identities into packages fit only for consumption and slivers of the corporate ladder.
New York eagerly embraces this version of identity and community. We must resist or we will only see each other, and ourselves, on horizons of insignificance. I am not cool, and I am not a cosmopolitan “New Yorker.”
Moench. Utahan. American. German American. That’s my identity and concerns in descending importance. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. If this makes for boring conversation New York, then instead of ‘Hello’, let’s just begin every discussion with “Boy, INSERT SMALL TOWN OR FOREIGN COUNTRY sucks. It sure is great to be in New York where people are interesting and things happen.” It could become New York’s own pledge of allegiance, being recited before class at all New York universities.