This past Saturday night, I was sitting in Collegetown Bagels, drinking an iced tea with my girlfriend, when I was greeted by a rather obviously inebriated frat boy. He shook my hand and said something along the lines of, “...you’ve got it all over your face!” He then shook my hand again and went off to sit with his friends.
The reasoning behind his greeting was fairly simple: I had just come back from Filthy/Gorgeous, and was sporting some rather garish-looking facepaint. What gave me pause about the whole affair, however, was how he managed to get the courage to come up and talk to me in the first place. What can inspire someone to wander up to a complete stranger and introduce themselves (in this case, several times)?
In this particular instance, alcohol is a pretty obvious culprit. But this happens even when it’s fairly clear that no Keystone Light is involved. It’s never as memorable as being told that I have John Carter of Mars all over my face, but when I’m out wandering around Ithaca, people I don’t know will occasionally acknowledge my existence. Not very often, but occasionally, and this is enough to somewhat startle me.
I imagine a good portion of the people reading this right now are thinking, “um...so? How is this worth devoting a major portion of an op-ed page to?” I, however, am not at all accustomed to this phenomenon. I’ve lived in New York City since I started high school, and I’ve become accustomed to assuming that any stranger who makes eye contact with you wants to sell you something.
What causes this cultural division? Why are people so much friendlier out here in Ithaca than in big bad New York City? Part of it can be attributed to a general lack of paranoia here, and to a more leisurely life lived by Ithacans. People here aren’t always rushing around with their Blackberries glued to their faces, nor are they usually in fear of being assaulted on the street. But this still does not answer the question of why exactly people go out of their way to greet complete strangers.
I think the answer lies in how people walk. In New York City, everyone walks. It’s how people get from one place to another. In Ithaca, however, once you get out of the confines of Cornell’s hill, most people get places in cars. This, ironically enough, creates a sort of community among pedestrians. We choose to, or through various circumstances have to, walk, and that brings us together. Therefore, to acknowledge another person on the sidewalk is to acknowledge them as part of this greater community of travelers on foot. This sort of community can’t exist when everyone is part of it, since it has nothing to set itself off against — therefore, no friendly greetings in New York.
Am I overthinking this? Are the readers who earlier were questioning why I get so worked up when people give me a quick nod on the sidewalk now thinking that I’m just applying a lot of unnecessary analysis to something that should just come naturally? After all, I can’t separate myself from the New York City culture I come from. It’s just as possible for someone born and raised in Ithaca to write a column going into depth about why New Yorkers never say “hi” to people on the street. Things like this always seem obvious to the people who grow up with them and bizarre to those who don’t.
However, the thing about most communities is that we don’t know that they’re there. This is because, fundamentally, we think that everyone else is in the community with us. Yet communities are defined as much by those inside of them as by those outside of them, since a community exists as a particular subset of the general population, a subset that is opposed to other portions of the population.
Next time someone nods their head at you as you walk down the street, think about your reaction. Odds are, how you feel is indicative of where you see yourself standing in the world, which communities you belong to and what kind of person you think you are. And if you nod back, maybe you’ll make a new friend.
Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.