An essay by MAGNET’s Mitch Myers
Long ago, as a young man born and raised in Chicago, I eagerly explored these United States of America. I first sought out familiar locales like Manhattan, Seattle and Los Angeles and encountered many different people in my travels. Sometimes, like when I visited L.A. in the 1980s, someone would inquire as to the nature of my hometown roots. Occasionally, they’d ask a more specific question, that is, “Are you from New York?”
Being somewhat naïve, I thought they were asking this because I radiated some kind of hip quotient, an arty, urban and intellectual coolness—like, what else could it be? Complimented, I’d dutifully explain that no, I was from the Midwest, a Chicago kid— imagining my big city ways had caused them to mistake my place of origin.
As time went on, I was compelled to widen my perception. After visiting Austin several times, I encountered this same question from fresh acquaintances—that is, “Are you from New York?” I began to assume that the query wasn’t based on my cool factor, but more likely a variation on the old familiar phrase, “You’re not from around here, are you?” That would be a fair observation. I sure as heck wasn’t from Texas, and perhaps it was simply my urban persuasion that led them to wonder if I might be from New York. Maybe these people just hadn’t been exposed to the difference between a Midwestern and Northeastern accent.
When I mentioned this to my mother years ago, she replied that she had often been asked this very same question and always chalked it up to her prevailing fashion sense, which was a tendency to always wear black. This seemed to satisfy her sense of self, and how others might perceive her. Ultimately, over time, I began to realize the true nature of this line of questioning. In that, I determined by virtue of research, deep thought and soul searching, that the exact and literal translation of “Are you from New York?” was, and is, for me, most precisely, “I notice that you’re Jewish.”
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that any of these folks were necessarily anti-Semitic in their profiling, they wanted (or needed) to affirm their appraisal for reasons good, bad or indifferent. This reminds me of Lenny Bruce’s classic routine where he explains the difference between being Jewish vs. goyish. Among other things, Lenny said, “Dig … if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic, if you live in New York you are Jewish. If you live in Butte, Mont., you are going to be goyish even if you are Jewish.”
I have to say that I can’t recall ever being asked this question, “Are you from New York?” when in New York or meeting a New York native. For some reason, no New Yorker ever felt the need to ascertain my New York-ness, or whatever you want to call it.
Also, in all the time living in my hometown, no one in Chicago had ever asked me if I was from New York. Not ever. That is, not until last summer. It finally happened in downtown Chicago over the July 4th weekend on the way to see the Grateful Dead with my pal Shirley and her husband Thom.
One thing you should know about Shirley is that she’s Israeli-born, but raised in the USA. She and I have a close friendship and we’ve been together all across the world. Over the years, we’ve hung out in Israel, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Austin and New York, as well as Chicago.
To illustrate our rapport, I’d have to recall the time we were in Austin for the South By Southwest Music Conference and spent a good 20 minutes at a Mexican restaurant arguing whether we should leave a tip of 17.5% like her father always did, or, as I insisted, just round it up to 20%}. Several minutes of that discussion included a debate over whether the sales tax should be included in our metrics.
I also have to say that while all this was going on, our dear friend Michael, who is not from New York, was there, too—sinking further and further under the table from sheer embarrassment at the scene of us hotly debating the respective merits of a tip differential like an episode straight out of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Anyway, that about sums up Shirley and me. So, like I was saying, Shirley, Thom and I were downtown, headed to the Dead concert at Soldier Field for the third time in three consecutive nights. We’d just left their hotel on Michigan Avenue when I suggested that we take a cab rather than walk since we’d been hanging out late every night and schlepping back and forth to all of the shows.
Shirley and Thom agreed, and as luck would have it, a taxi had just pulled up. We jumped in, asked the driver to take us to Soldier Field and voila—we were off.
Now, the first thing the cabdriver asked us was, “Are you guys from New York?” Shirley and I looked at each other because we’d spoken many times of my revelation as to the meaning of this seemingly innocuous question. We smiled knowingly and almost laughed. We could have been tourists from anywhere, hailing a cab in front of a downtown hotel on a holiday weekend.
In an effort to be clever and play out the scenario to its fullest, I answered, “Oh yeah, we’re from New York all right.” Everything seemed well and good and we were chatting amiably when the cabbie directed another question my way. He wanted to know, “Are you a lawyer?” This struck me as a bit more stereotyping than I was used to, but I was still trying to be funny and just said no, I wasn’t a lawyer but I could have been. Shirley didn’t say much about that one and Thom was pretty much silent.
The cab driver responded by sharing something about his own life—that he was close to getting his degree in hospitality management and soon would be quitting his job as a cabdriver. The cabbie also told us that he was Palestinian. In an effort to relate to the man, I told him that my brother lived in Jerusalem. In response, the cabbie exclaimed, “He probably lives in my grandfather’s house!” As you might imagine, nobody in the cab was laughing.
The cabbie then turned his attention to Shirley and things got weird. It wasn’t any more of this “Are you from New York” nonsense. He just asked her bluntly, “Are you Jewish, too?” “Ummm, yeah” she replied, unsure as to the appropriateness of his question but not wanting to offend.
Finally the cabbie focused on Thom, who was sitting between Shirley and myself. “How about you? Are you Jewish, too?” he asked. Thom, who is definitely not from New York, answered the question in no uncertain terms. He said something to the effect of, “I’m not going to answer that question and I don’t like where this conversation is heading at all! And I’ll tell you something else, if you’re going into the hospitality business maybe you should learn not to ask someone about their religion within five minutes of meeting them!”
It was only then that I realized Thom had been horrified as to the nature of our discourse. He wasn’t going to object if I made an ass out of myself, but he was feeling very protective of his wife. He was angry, and he wasn’t having it. Thom’s a pretty big guy and hails from New England. He isn’t a violent person, but he does have a temper and wasn’t backing down from a confrontation with this cab driver.
Things got tense. The cabbie kept eyeballing Thom in his rear view mirror and Thom was staring right back at him as Shirley and I tried to diffuse the situation until we could get out of the cab. I should mention that we were heading south on Lake Shore Drive and there was no way of stopping until we arrived at Soldier Field.
The whole trip couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes and we reached our destination without further incident. We got out quick, paid the fare plus tip (decidedly less than 17.5%) and tried to put the whole affair behind us.
But I haven’t forgotten what happened. It’s clear to me now that some people encounter profiling all of the time and just do their best to ignore the implications so they can get through their day with the least amount of hassle.
Anyway, I’m not trying to preach or complain. I just wanted to tell my story. I also have to admit that the next time somebody asks me if I’m from New York, I really don’t know what I’m going to say. Would you?