A New York State of Mind

It has been said that The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.[1] This may be true, but my experiences in West Sussex (England) imply that our cultural differences go far deeper.

It was my first trip to the far side of the Atlantic, and after an overnight flight, an abbreviated day at work, and a brief nap in my hotel room, I awoke at 6PM local time hungry.  Not merely for supper, which was a secondary concern, but for knowledge.  Here I was in a new town, a new country, a new continent.  I had to get a feel for the place I would be living for the next few months.cigarette

This led me out the front door of the George Hotel in Crawley and down the High Street.  I passed a pub and a movie theater, and ran into my first local.

“Sorry, got a fag?” he asked, and I was sure I was about to be attacked.

For those who only speak American English, a “fag” is a cigarrette.  I already knew this.  I also knew, and gave, the correct response:  “Sorry, I don’t smoke.”[2]  What I didn’t realize at the time was the friendly reality of British culture. Apparently, even at a time when the IRA was actively bombing buildings in London, it was perfectly normal to bum a cigarette from a total stranger in downtown Crawley.

If you are ever in New York, and a stranger says anything to you on the street, be prepared to hand over your wallet.  We don’t talk to unknown people over here unless we want to transact business with them, and on an empty street, that business transaction is most likely a mugging.  The friendly people ignore you; it’s a completely different state of mind.

This wasn’t a unique experience for me, either. I have been chatted up[3] in restaurants, shared Sunday dinner with people I had just met, and been invited by young couples to join them for coffee and to watch Red Dwarf.  I’m an extreme extrovert myself, so I was able to take the whole thing in stride.

Still, I hope they weren’t expecting something more than conversation, because if they were, I left them disappointed.

Photograph © 2005 by Tomasz Sienicki [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.
[1] Possibly said first by George Bernard Shaw, unless he didn’t.
[2] The British, when being polite, will say “sorry.”  Americans don’t do this; I think we avoid anything that implies culpability.  Americans say “excuse me,” presumably because it’s what we want you to do.
[3] I have only ever heard the term “chatting up” on PBS or overseas, so I assume it’s UK English. Language aside, the practice of making small talk with a stranger you’re not trying to date is certainly foreign to my experience.


A Late Night in Crawley

Every city has a neighborhood like it:  poor, heavily populated by minorities, avoided by the local gentility. In Albany, they call it Arbor Hill. In Schenectady, it’s Hamilton Hill.  For Crawley in West Sussex, England, that neighborhood is Bewbush.

Almost twenty years ago, I had the good pleasure of working in England for approximately three months.  I say good pleasure because, unlike most of my business trips, this one actually provided me with time off on the weekends. As a result, I often had some time to visit a local pub on the weekend. Everyone in England seemed interested in chatting with an itinerant American, so I was never lonely.

One weekend, I walked a few blocks from my hotel (the George in Crawley) to to a pub at the end of the High Street, a pub I had selected on the basis of the Guinness sign in the window. They didn’t sell Guinness, and I suspect they never did, but the nice young lady at the bar recommended I try Newcastle Brown Ale, so I had one.

1467801861 ae07518ec0My bartender was the epitome of punk chic, and I soon found she fit the style of this pub’s clientele as well.  Dressed in black, her copious patches of bare skin were decorated with a constellation of silver piercings, and she was young.  Armed with my beer, I settled in to watch the people around me, expecting to meet some new friends and perhaps learn a thing or two.  I was soon invited to join a group nearby.

The leader of this group was an older gentleman whose heavily-pierced body bore more tattoos than I had ever seen before that time. The remainder of the group were all in their late twenties or early thirties, and stood out as more conservative in appearance than most of the crowd at that pub. I joined their circle, and soon learned a bit about each. Sadly, I cannot remember their names.

  • The tattooed man, though fearsome in appearance, was actually the most mild-mannered of the group. By comparison,
  • the activist cared passionately about the fate of animals, and while physically small, was perhaps the most frighening of them all.
  • The BFF was close friends with the activist, and had organized this gathering on behalf of her boyfriend,
  • the muscle, who had just been released from prison.  He seemed nice enough, but he was sufficiently muscular that I didn’t want to learn differently.
  • Lastly, we had the schivuz[1], who had apparently attached himself to this party in search of free liquor.

In retrospect, I think a more intelligent man might have taken one look at this group and decided to move on, but I am clearly not that man. Having accepted a round from the group, I was committed buying one myself (and likely drinking four others)[2], even if it took me all night to accomplish. It was only after this round had been completed that someone in the party suggested we relocate to a more amicable pub across town.

The six of us piled into a cab (Britons are fastidious about avoiding DWI, in my experience) and rode a few minutes down the A2220 to Bewbush. They were right about the pub: it was a large brightly-lit space with a high ceiling and plenty of room for pub games.  Quite unusual for an English building, I think, and the broad range of available beers exceeded that of the small country pubs with which I was more familiar.

In any event, my round to buy came up, so I pulled out my wallet, and everyone placed their order.  At the time, reproductions of imported american beers were just coming into fashion, and the schivuz tried to order a Budweiser. I almost gagged.

“You people have the best beer in the world, and you want to drink that swill?” I asked.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at people’s bad taste (the Spice Girls were topping the charts at the time), but I was.

Appropriately mollified, the schivuz changed his order — to a Grolsch.  From this I was able to determine that he was more interested in spending my money than in buying a high quality beer.

Shortly after this, the activist indicated her desire to get back to Crawley, and the BFF placed a call on her cell phone.  We were told it would be 45 minutes before a cab could arrive to pick us up. I continued drinking my beer and played a round of pub billiards, losing horribly.  It is a very good thing I do not gamble.

After another round the activist tried to shock me by leaning heavily on her BFF and loudly proclaiming “she’s my mate!”  Probably she expected me to interpret her phrase sexually, but I was by that time bilingual (in both English and American) and knew exactly what she meant. There was plenty of joking all around, and we were having a good time.

Roughly an hour later, the cab still had not arrived. The BFF called the cab company and learned that we had somehow missed the cab, and it would be roughly another hour before we could get one.  This made the activist exceptionally unhappy, and she seemed to be the kind of person I didn’t want to see upset.  At the same time, the schivuz had somehow managed to get the muscle to pay for his round of drinks, and the two of them were beginning to argue as well.  The whole scene had begun to look like someplace I did not want to be, so I excused myself to step outside for some fresh air.

The sky was clear that night, and light pollution was absent in that part of Bewbush, so I was treated to a starry sky the likes of which one cannot get in my part of New York.  Looking up, I noticed the Big Dipper, then followed it by habit to identify the Little Dipper, the handle of which contains Polaris, the North Star. The peace of a starry night overtook me, and then I realized what I was seeing.

Inside the pub a conflict was brewing, a conflict I wanted to avoid.  Less than two miles to the northeast, though, lay my hotel, and now I knew which direction I was facing. My decision was clear.

It was a pleasant hike home in the cool night air, and the only person I encountered along the way was a little old lady pushing her shopping cart down the empty sidewalk. Buoyed by my self confidence and three or four Newcastle Brown Ales, I practically floated home.

When Monday rolled around, I was still feeling proud about my late-night orienteering, and told my office mates about my adventure.  One coworker was particularly stunned.

“You walked home?” he asked.  “Through Bewbush?  Are you out of your bleeding mind?”

I still think I made the right decision.

[1]schivuz (pronounced skee-vootz) is an Italian word used to describe someone of marginal ethical character. I use the word advisedly.
[2]in the US, a group of strangers (or even acquaintances) will frequently purchase their drinks on separate bills to insure that each one pays his share. In England, each person in the group buys a round for everyone in the group, and receives one from everyone else. This is a far more social practice, I feel, though it does force one to drink more heavily than I am normally inclined to do.