Back In America

Back In America

I poked my fork along the edges of an Asian salad in a diner peculiarly named “The Coffee Shop.” Of course there’s nothing strange about a diner named “The Coffee Shop.” But that’s assuming that what’s in that diner are the things one would expect to be in a diner. Liquid butter in the large plastic jugs. Eggs and bacon sizzling on a flattop. Home fries and Formica tables. But you don’t get that here. Not in the heart of New York City.

It’s all the more curious here because this diner plays the part aesthetically. Outside it has the seen-better-days neon sign and aluminum flashing around the windows. And, inside, it has the traditional s-shaped counter that curves over itself, the see-through galley kitchen, the ugly teal tile that one would expect. But when you open up the menu eager for a breakfast to spite your arteries you can’t help but mumble to yourself, “Fuck.”

“Lump crab and arugula salad.” “Colombian arepa.” “Feijoada completa.” Oh, and that “Sesame chicken salad,” I mentioned earlier. Not the normal stuff of an American diner. There are no eggs and sausage here; there are no biscuits and gravy. There’s largely nothing to remind me of that diner we used to go to in the late morning hours after cleaning up the bar and locking the doors—the one that shed light like a beacon on that dark corner of downtown Nowhere, Illinois.

None of this surprises me after nine months in this City. I don’t expect anything here because expectations aren’t a good accessory to wear around these parts. But while I poke gingerly now at my salad, I can tell that my dad is less than satisfied with whatever it was he ordered. He pokes it too, as he taste tests his Bloody Mary—a drink that all too often is spicy in this City and he doesn’t like spicy.

My parents are visiting this weekend. It’s the first time they have been to New York City—except this forty minute plunge we made into the East Village a little under a year ago when they acquiesced to helping me move and, more importantly, to driving through the Holland Tunnel into the belly of the beast.

As my dad prods the food, a bit deflated, and steals some fancy sausage from my mom’s plate, you can tell he’s rolling something over in his head.

But I’ll get back to that. We come from a pretty small town that floats in the middle of soybean and corn fields. I am not a farm boy, but we had a farm and I did the work that most people don’t do nowadays. I’ve baled hay and shoveled shit and helped build fences. I’ve played in the creek, taken treks through snow covered pastures, and climbed the rafters in the haymow.

My dad was a farm boy though—a real one. He grew up on that same farm I stole some Americana from. And he woke up early to do whatever needed to be done because his dad told him so. He eventually left and went to college downstate in a city bigger than ours but ultimately an Illinois town nevertheless.

I’ve seen him hoist a just-born calf off the ground to save it’s life, seen him run through thigh deep water to try—unsuccessfully—to kick life into a few cows that were killed in a lightening storm, and seen him laugh when a hotwire fence got the better of my older brother. My dad is a farm boy—a real one.

So I hear his phrases growing up like “What is right is right,” and “salt of the earth.” I hear quips like “good enough for the girls I go with” when he forces a 2×4 into place. I hear lessons like “you never listen to what the guy across the line is saying”—even though I never was built to be a football player. And I get used to a good-ole boy demeanor that can’t be impersonated, only acquired.

The heartland lends itself to all this. It’s a mostly unnuanced place and it breeds simpler, more polite people than elsewhere in the country. Our parents tell us to shake an adult’s hand when you greet them, and give your condolences to people at funerals even when you’re too young to understand the gravity of a funeral. We’re told to respect those older than you and to stand up for yourself around your contemporaries. We’re told to say please and thank you and excuse me—and we say them often.

As I sit in that dinner and watch my parents eat though, I realize for the first time that how far away the heartland feels. The asian salad ratifies the thought. I’m approaching a decade of being away from what we now call a flyover state and no amount of reminiscing will erase what the rest of the world has done to me in my absence.

Were there any doubt, my dad dispelled it that morning when he broke into conversation with a perfectly innocuous question about what he had ordered.

“Honey,” he asked my mom pointing to something on his plate, “What’s that stuff called back in America?”

It was at that moment it hit me. This City, to my dad, is not America. It’s not his America anyway and it’s not the America I grew up in.

So even when I mustered, “Dad, we’re still in America,” I could claim no more than technical accuracy.

My dad’s America is that place where you know the name of the guy at the gas station who serves you coffee every morning; where people—even kids who have long-since grown into adults—still refer to you as Mr. Schafer; where neighbors offer help pulling tree trunks out of the fields because they have nothing particularly pressing to do.

This City is not that to him. That guy at the corner coffee place is indifferent to his order; no one—even kids or maybe especially kids—calls him “Mr.” anything unless it’s “Mister get out of my way”; and few people offer any help at all except when it helps them along too.

I think I underestimated—because I had been gone long enough—how jarring and different a corner like Bowery and Canal is from First and Main and how totally jarring and different the people standing on that corner are.

Still though, I believe—my sanity requires of me—that most people, wherever they are, are not all that different from one another. My dad might see things differently because he’s standing on that hill over there rather than on the building I’m now standing on. But hill or building, it’s just a matter of perspective—and if either of us shifts ever so slightly, kneels down, or straightens up, we might start seeing things from the same angle.

That shared perspective is what matters today. I hear about how far away the coasts and the heartland are, both in spirit and in miles. But I’ve seen both places and I’ve spent time with people in Illinois and Missouri and Louisiana, just as I have spent time with people in DC and Manhattan. I’ve learned that there are bad people in this world but most are good irrespective of geography.

It’s that common goodness that we have to at once recognize and cultivate now more than ever. Because the lessons my dad taught me—do what’s right and work hard and stand up for what you believe in—have no business being stranded on that artificial island I grew up on. No more than the decency of a hard-skinned New Yorker has any business being stranded on this quite real Island I now call home.

So even now, sitting in this booth with my parents, I think back to the farm and I think about what my dad taught me. And I join him in rolling things around my head, and think about how those lessons have shaped who I am even now, and I think to myself in the breach of this exercise just how lucky I really was to be raised by someone who has little patience for glitz and glamor and an unbending demand that that you try, always, to be a good person.

Image courtesy of Patrick. Some rights reserved.

© 2016 Matthew Schafer