I was just at Way Beyond Bagels, cashing out at the register. As the clerk made change and printed a receipt, I noticed the hands of the woman beside me, crossing off what looked like the last items of her list.
“Ooh, well look at you,” I said. She looked up from her list and smiled the smile of a child who’s just been praised. “It’s a great feeling isn’t it?” I said.
“Absolutely! I’m just looking it over, and I’ve only been to three places.” She turned the list over, now examining the back of her paper where the list ended. “Just a few more stops, and, well, I just feel so productive!”
“It’s the best,” I confirm.
“You must not be from around here,” she says.
“No, I am,” I say. “Well, I live here now.”
Feasting words, little bites that lead to chewing the fat. “Oh, so where are you from originally?” she says this as if she’s just learned I’m a pediatric surgeon for her son Jerry or Barry. There’s that lift in her voice; now we’re getting down to it. “New York,” I say.
“Oh, me too. Me too.”
“But I’ve spent the last six years in Texas.”
“Well, that good ol’ Southern hospitality’s rubbed off on you.” And in that moment, loading up on bagels and lox, I felt for the first time in my life proud to be a Texan, thankful that manners are contagious, and also slightly horrified, because if they do rub off on us, after a while I’d have a case of Boca manners, which is like having the manners of John Candy at an all you can eat buffet, that is, no manners at all. I now take pride in being thought of as warm. Not that I ever felt cold, but in all the years of my life, no one had ever asked where I was raised because I’d behaved in a manner so uncharacteristically of its region. Basically, I’d never been called out for being nice.
And now here in Florida, I’ve heard it several times. Faith, a stranger sitting beside me in a nail salon, opened up to me about her epilepsy, remarking, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because you smile.” And I’ve thought about that. It’s not that I smile, there are plenty of smilers. No, what I do that separates me from most every other Boca stranger and I’m sure New York, too, is that I smile first.
When we first moved here I’d smile and wave to every car with a B’nai Israel sign on it, as if to say, we have that in common, we’re an “our kind” or “us,” in an us vs. them world. Not a select few, but we share a common ground and pride. The way if, when you were younger, you’d bond first with the kids who seemed most like you at school or a new camp. Or if when you’re outside Texas but see someone with a longhorn cap, you’ll say “Hook ‘Em.” Only when I waved to strangers with the same school decal, a small school, they looked at me as if I were wearing horns. Which I suppose I can understand. If I’m pulling into a parking lot and some stranger starts to wave at me, I’d question my own sanity. “Should I know her? Is my memory going? She must have me confused for someone else.” Though as I thought all this, I’d be waving back with a smile.