I never thought of myself as a Southern California girl even though I had lived most of my life there. My identity problem existed because I too accepted the largely held assumption that all So Cal girls were blonde, profoundly thin and managed to always look fantastic in bikinis while spending endless idle hours perfecting those flawless, golden-brown tans or being courted by legions of handsome, trust-fund endowed, eligible bachelors. So of course it stands to reason that I never conceived that I might be confused and misjudged as an authentic So Cal gal. I’m definitely not blond, neither a natural one or one made-up from a large assortment of blond colors that come in those handy little bottles at salons or at any local drug store. Physically, I tend to be more like the Sophia Loren/Marilyn Monroe type, in other words, I was naturally endowed with natural curves. Although I lived most of my previous life in So Cal, I was only once identified as a So Cal girl and that one insightful observation was made on the streets of Rome, Italy near the Via Veneto. That lone observation educated me and changed how I thought about myself and led to my personal acceptance that I was in fact an authentic So Cal girl.
A confluence of unavoidable events occurred in my life two years ago that forced me to leave So Cal. Like far too many people, I too spent a lot of my time drifting through life and I didn’t confront the reality of my true identity until after I was no longer a resident in Southern California. My destination just so happened to land me in a place located all the way across the nation, in fact, all the way to the opposite coast. The exciting thing for me was my new home was located just a mere two blocks away from the Atlantic coast.
Initially, I gladly accepted the changes associated with moving to a new and vibrant environment near the ocean because I had always wanted to live closer to the ocean but the expense of doing so in So Cal was wildly prohibitive. The reality of just how different my new city of residence was from living anywhere, even near the ocean, in Southern California began to seep into my consciousness the very first week. It took less than a week for the appeal of living near the beach to wane. This place could not have been more alien than if it had been located on a small and distant planet.
You have to understand that I had not relocated without having first visited the location and its famous surroundings several times in the recent past. Most would have to admit that the transient experience of traveling to and visiting a place is usually very different from living, working, and thriving in that same place, day in and day out.
So, as the result of a profound change in my physical environment and the unavoidable difference of living in a place that was a mix of unfamiliar social customs, I quickly discovered and began to ponder my dilemma of trying to understand what a nice girl like me was doing in a place like Staten Island, New York.
While a resident of the golden State of California, I had never really appreciated many of the amenities that were afforded anyone who lived there. The obvious amenity to most who live there would of course be the constancy of weather. The weather in So Cal is almost always sunny, with the chance of rain being an infrequent occurrence. Typically, rain in So Cal is a light drizzle with real storms are the exception. The occasional drizzle always manages to moisten the streets and freeways with just enough wet to liquefy all those accumulated carbon particles dropped by the millions of cars and always turns LA freeways into mega-parking lots. Outside of the occasional drizzle and of course, the expected, although infrequent earthquake, living in So Cal with its stable benign weather pattern is a major plus. With the weather patterns changing wildly across the nation, So Cal might experience a future light snow and one thing is certain: if a light snow fell on So Cal streets, half the licensed/unlicensed driving population would languish and perish on the congested freeways and nearby streets. So Cal offers resident jam-packed freeways accompanied by choking exhaust fumes, smog and its unidentified particulates that could seriously impact one’s health and even with those occasional earthquakes, there’s not many deterrents to living a good life in So Cal.
In a not so perfect contrast, the weather on Staten Island changes dramatically several times a day. Three days after my arrival in Staten Island it rained; I mean a real deluge. City streets and curbs became submerged and soon disappeared. The morning greeted me with a clear and brilliant blue sky dotted with a few fleecy white clouds. In less than two hours, the sky clouded over with ominous dark, heavy black, angry clouds. The gloom hung over the island like a shroud and I was certain a reckoning was sure to follow. And it did. The rain fell continuously while the island’s storm drains were overwhelmed by too much water run-off within the first thirty minutes. Little did I know those storm drains were always filled to the brim with trash and debris.
If you were to compare the streets of So Cal to the streets of Staten Island, the comparison would yield a verdict that Staten Island is a major trash heap. Trash is everywhere on the island. I can’t tell you how many times people would stop in front of my home, roll down their car windows and dispose of their trash in the street. Almost everyone freely discards their trash on the streets of Staten Island. Not only are the streets stained by an accumulation of years of towering, draining, garbage can/bags placed on the streets for twice weekly pick-ups, but residents seem to be oblivious to the fact that they live in a trash heap. I quickly began to understand why mice and rats are a problem everywhere on the island. If such living conditions were allowed to exist in So Cal, the residents would riot and demand the streets be cleaned-up.
I also soon learned that the borough of Staten Island is a quaint little place that has more in common with the “Island of Dr. Moreau” than its assumed physical description of being an island. I began to notice a similarity to the book and the movie after my first interaction with some of the residents. After living on the island a month I was convinced that I had indeed landed on that far and distant, science fiction island alluded to in the book . I was at first amazed by the number of delis and pizza parlors on the island. One morning I stopped at a local deli to buy a bagel and a cup of coffee.
Unlike So Cal with a Starbucks on every corner, Staten Island has at least two delis on every block. That morning I encountered what is a common morning ritual practiced by the many residents of Staten Island; “Good f---ing morning!. How ya “f---ing doing?” I later learned that these daily greetings are common and always delivered with great gusto and warmth. I also learned that custom requires everyone to speak very loudly, allowing everyone present to enjoy the camaraderie.
I had initially thought that the island’s residents were all afflicted with inexplicable deafness. Regardless of where I ventured, the people, that is, husbands and wives, friends, acquaintances, children, et al, all seemed incapable of communicating with a normal tone of voice, especially when dropping the “F” bomb. I’m not implying that I have not uttered my fair share of “F” bombs, even in So Cal, but I am here to state that the “F” bomb is not a word used in casual greetings or conversations by most of the people in So Cal. So Cal social customs reside in the all too numerous fake air kiss and limp arm hugs that always culminate in a whispered; “How are you, really?” or “How are things?,” with the inquirer generally darting-off before a response can be formulated or delivered.
I do not mean to imply that my entire experience on Staten Island was negative and traumatizing. I did not meet some genuinely friendly and kind people on the island and they also managed not to either verbally insult me or looked through me with that practiced icy stare that only New Yorkers can deliver with aplomb and je ne sais quoi. The kind souls I met on the island ensured that I received proper directions and information about residential parking ordinances and the finer points of garbage collection. Without a doubt, these blessed and rare individuals crossed my path infrequently and I was more often than not confronted with sneers and unhelpfulness.
After being insulted several times, I began to reflect on just how different people acted on Staten Island when compared to how people act in the rest of the civilized world. These personal experiences on Staten Island let me know that when I lived in So Cal that I had at least experienced some form of real human contact even though the ‘car culture’ obliterates most human interaction. Most everyone greets everyone with a smile, even if that smile is a fake one. Just try to picture millions of people in their cars hurtling from place to place, stopping only to enter secured parking structures or their own locked garages in secure gated communities.
The brash gruffness of Staten Island residents was not just confined to the style of their unique verbal communications with each other and the outside world. Driving a car in Staten Island is a unique experience that out weighs all others. Let me begin by stating that driving the streets of Staten Island was like being consigned to the seventh level of hell. Unlike So Cal, where the majority of the streets and freeways are pothole free, Staten Island’s streets and expressways are riddled with potholes. So Cal provides its drivers with endless, smooth-paved streets that meander to manicured neighborhoods and trash-free shopping and entertainment zones.
I can attest to the fact that I never encountered a single pothole free street in all of Staten Island. In fact, many potholes on Staten Island were in fact sink holes, crevices that were so deep and broad that small vehicles often disappeared into their cavernous maws. Attempting to drive on such streets was a challenge in itself, but when you mix in the “whatever, whatever!” attitude practiced by a sizable number of Staten Island drivers, then you have the recipe for disaster. No wonder the island’s streets are trolled by emergency vehicles 24/7. The norm for drivers on Staten Island is to routinely ignore commonly established laws that govern driving habits worldwide, like stopping at red lights or not driving the wrong way on a one way street. It would have been funny to have heard overheard the communication that took place between a resident and a driver on a one-way residential street if the situation had not been so tragic: “Hey, can’t you read? The sign says one way!” The driver, guiding his vehicle in the wrong direction on the sidewalk replied; “Yea, I can read, so shut the f----up.”
To avoid the unavoidable chassis repairs and/or hospital/dental bills, a driver on Staten Island must become an expert demolition driver with the skills to consistently and fluidly avoid axel-breaking potholes and the speed demon, law-breaking local drivers. To many Staten Island drivers, a red light is merely a suggestion rather than a steadfast law. Even the police choose to ignore such traffic infractions. In So Cal, running through a red light could be the ignition point of a classic police chase on crowded So Cal freeways.
As if the potholes and the lawless drivers weren't enough of a cultural shock, to learn that the island is populated is populated by residents of all ages playing eardrum destroying rap that blasts from motorcycles, cars and trucks sound systems. Everyone, everywhere expects and accepts that the young speed around town with their music blaring, but the mind boggles at the number of rap-fueled, obviously well over fifty year old, balding, white loafer-wearing playboys driving their convertibles trolling for companionship with rap screaming from their speakers.
Thankfully, I escaped my real-life horror movie titled “The Island of Dr. Moreau” in less than a year. A full 18 months past my life changing experience in SI, my nerve endings have begun to heal and I don’t awake in the middle of the night to the dulcet tones of the same couple fighting about the same thing in the middle of the street at 3:00 AM or to the inebriated slurred blend of the many different languages that populate the island.
One of my past neighbors who was born and raised on the Staten Island and married a California girl, demonstratively summed up how he felt about remaining in Staten Island; “Anywhere but here! Anywhere.” And with those simple, life-changing words, I bid you and Staten Island adieu!