Being Different

by antigob

It’s Election Night and the guy next to me at the bar turns and says, ‘This is the Romney section.’ ‘Really?’ I say. ‘Yeah,’ he says, before adding, ‘Nah I’m kidding.’ He looks worried that he’s caused offense, but it’s not his fault: I still haven’t completely figured out life here: I’m finding it hard to even communicate with people.

Yesterday, I walk into a barber’s shop. ‘So what do you want?’ said the barber. I said, ‘Can you keep the length, shorten the sides, but round it off a bit?’ He nodded, and then BRZZZZZ go the clippers. I could see what was going to happen, but did I say anything? No. I just sat there wondering how it was all going to work out.

‘Hey you know who that was?’ said the barber after the guy next to me left, ‘Victor Verhaeghe, he’s in Boardwalk Empire. Comes in before he films. You see?’

‘I haven’t got my glasses on.’

‘Nah man, have you seen it? The show?’

‘No.’

‘It’s good, so how much you pay for a haircut in London?’

It’s around fifty bucks, but I don’t want to say that. I’m embarrassed, even though I’ve got no problem paying that much. Luckily my last haircut was in rural Lincolnshire for roughly the same price as I’m paying here, so I blather on about that instead. Pretty soon the barber is holding up a mirror. Even before I put on my glasses I can see my head is a radically different shape. ‘Take a card, come back,’ said the barber, and I will because he did a good job.

Looking back, if I said to the barber, ‘I pay around fifty bucks for a cut’, it wouldn’t be a big deal. He wouldn’t have cared. Part of it’s down to my attitude to money, which is reflective of the British attitude to money, which is: nobody likes a man who spends thirty pounds on a haircut. It’s all linked to the perception of success. If it’s characteristic of Brits to find it a little unsavoury to say, ‘I’m successful’, then the opposite is true for the US, and perhaps this explains why on election night a rich man who pays considerably less tax than most, nearly ended up in the White House. If you believe you’re going to make it, you don’t want to pay high taxes when you finally get there.

But it wasn’t until a random comment from our Indian cab driver on the way back from JFK on Monday that I really started to get my head around the US.  He was busy telling us all the scams dodgers use to get out of paying – ducking into buildings or simply throwing two dollars balled up and saying it’s the full fare. ‘The cops don’t want to know; you can never prove what they paid. Now when that happens I just take the guy out to the middle of nowhere and kick him out.’ Then he said, ‘hey you want to know what New York is like? India.’ And suddenly I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve been to India three times and it’s a society polarized by sex, caste, race, religion and all manner of colonial baggage. On so many levels it’s a massive contradiction: nobody drinks and yet there are over 100 million alcoholics. India is a country made up of different groups, and even though these different groups cause all sorts of problems, no one denies they exist. It’s defined by its diversity. India also forces you to acknowledge that you are different too because if you’re from England you stick out. India is hard work. You have to get stuck in, but it rewards your efforts. And I think the same applies to the US. I’ve got to get stuck in and I’ve got stop worrying about what other people think. I am different but that’s okay because the US is all about difference. You couldn’t get a country more polarized on Election night.

So back in the Underground Bar on Election night, the guy next to me follows up his joke: ‘I’m screwing around, seriously.’ ‘Oh, it’s cool,’ I say and I ask him about the one thing that unites all New Yorkers at the moment: Sandy. He pulls out his iPhone and shows me a picture of his car. A tree has fallen right next to it. ‘I got lucky,’ he says.

Otherwise, it was a boozy night, but this is what I remember:

  • Male anchors in black suits and the women in purple.
  • A correspondent in Henrico County, Virginia (holding up the paper to the camera): “I did this calculation myself – see pencil – no computers.”
  • ‘Now More Than Ever’ is the strapline for Vote 4 Energy, which is a little weird because I’m sure it’s the strapline from the movie studio in Robert Altman’s, The Player.
  • “As the big basket of eggs comes out of California and into Obama’s total…”
  • “Romney’s plan ABCDE is gone. Don’t ask me about F.”
  • On Twitter, the entire Bartlett Administration from The West Wing lives on. They talk to one another quite regularly.
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