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From Apples To Oranges To Grande Skim Milk Extra-foamy Lattes

How a Bicoastal Identity Crisis is Resolved (Caffeine Is Always the Answer).

April 21, 1996|Kate Braverman | Kate Braverman's last piece for the magazine was on her family's move to the Allegheny Mountains. She is the author of a trilogy of Novels about Los Angeles, numerous short stories and poems. She is now affiliated with Alfred University

I've always hated New York City, that poisonous configuration on the other, inferior coast. It's a ghastly, decaying city, the subject of late-night monologues and front page stories detailing unspeakable atrocities. The Big Bad Apple is continuing evidence that cities are becoming obsolete. Watching New York struggle and succumb has been a sort of national media performance art piece, a slow-motion conceptual choreography of chaos and entropy. But it's had nothing to do with me.

My hometown is the other, the Enormous Rotting Orange, curse of the Pacific. Imagine how surprised I was when we moved to our university enclave in the Allegheny Mountains of western New York state, and everyone greeted us by saying, "So, you're the new faculty from New York City."

"No. Of course not," I responded. "We're from Los Angeles." I realized that there is no term for those who have left Los Angeles. New Yorkers have a status that lasts forever, no matter how long they've been away. New Yorkers carry their history with them in their accent, like an audio stain. So do Southerners, for that matter, and Bostonians. But there's no identifiable verbal characteristic for the former Angeleno. So why are we mistaken for New Yorkers? What could we share with them? Our nervous agitation, for one thing. We talk too fast for this rural world. We express our needs as if someone was poised at our back, about to remove a concealed weapon and discharge it into our flesh. We ask for bread at the market and expect an argument--we'll have to assert ourselves, entice them into selling it to us. We have an alarming sense of time and immediacy. If we are five minutes behind, that might mean entering the freeway during rush-hour commute, spending three hours in agony, dodging death and being late for our children's soccer practice or orthodontist. And we'll miss our tennis game completely. We are scheduled into the next century. We anticipate trouble wherever we go, detours, earthquakes, muggings, cancellations. We have tics and ulcers. We have back pain and migraines. We've been overworked for decades. In short, we're the urban wounded, and in this region, they translate that into three words: New York City. We have a strange squint, too. It's from wearing sunglasses every day for 25 years. It wasn't the sun, I try to explain. It was the glare reflecting off the stucco, a harsh, garish yellow that seemed to have glass shards and heartbreak in it. There was a quality in that light that made me think of melanoma and needing to protect my face. "So, you're the new folks from New York," the box boy offered. "No. We're from Los Angeles." I try to defend myself while preparing for the buying ritual: watching my grocery bags, bodily guarding them while concurrently proving that I match my ID, that my checks and credit cards aren't stolen and I'm not on the wanted list of any governmental organization.

I've never been asked for my identification in Allegany County. But I'm still regularly mistaken for a New Yorker. It's that delirious postmodern way we have about us, that overstimulated stagger. There's also that narcissistic, ego-enhancing dialogue that masquerades for conversation in Los Angeles. For instance, when people ask how you are in Los Angeles, you answer with your current aggrandizement. You update your rsum. "I just optioned another screenplay. We're going to Hawaii." In the Allegheny Mountains, when they ask how you are, the answer is "Fine." A variation is, "Looks like the storm's passing." Unsolicited personal information about career and new acquisitions is not only unacceptable, it's incomprehensible. I'm trying not to be mistaken for a New Yorker and I'm also trying to get a caff latte tall, with foamy nonfat milk. I'm trying to do this simultaneously. It's a stretch, but I'm committed to meeting life's challenges.

I order a nonfat latte in Cleveland. I'm thinking about New York and Los Angeles, the Big Bad Apple and the Enormous Rotting Orange. These two miserable fruit metaphors don't seem to be making a graceful transition into the next century. Perhaps cities as sweets may be too literal for the millennium. The new cities, like Seattle and Atlanta, don't have edible symbols. They are like configurations in cyberspace. They recognize that they are nodes on a network, not the main ports of primary trade routes. They deal in information, not actual cargoes. They're conceptual. You can't hold them in your hand and eat them. In Cleveland, where I'm trying to get a latte and not be mistaken for a New Yorker, I'm given a cola glass with espresso in the bottom and a paper carton of milk.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" I ask.

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