One night after supper, I take the dog for a walk in my new hometown of Durham. A car pulls up behind us, so we step aside to let it pass. It turns the corner and parks. Several young men wearing shorts and ball caps climb out as Annie and I round the bend.
"Hey," the blond driver nods to me as he crosses the road.
"Hi," I reply. I'm tired. My mind is not on this street.
"How you doin' this evening?" he asks.
I take a look at him. His face is open and relaxed. He hasn't broken stride, but he's also still waiting for my answer.
"Good," I say. He smiles in no particular way. Satisfied, glad to hear I'm doin' good, as if I've confirmed something he'd hoped to hear. Pleasant. He's being pleasant. We are exchanging pleasantries.
"You have a nice night," he says, ascending the steps to the house with his buddies.
"Thanks," I say to his back. Three houses down, I kick myself for not saying, "You, too."
This happens again and again. In checkout lines. On the phone. Even the utility companies welcome me to Carolina when I call to set up accounts. In New York no one says "hello" on the street. There are too many faces bobbing by to acknowledge each one even if you wanted to. If someone does say, "Hey!" to you, it will almost certainly be followed with, "The fuck you doin?" or a similar query. New Yorkers give each other a break by leaving each other alone in the midst of all that unnerving proximity. (It is a form of graciousness, actually. One of those unsung cooperative phenomena that make cramming 10 million people onto a small island just off the northeast coast of America possible.)
In the Durham post office one afternoon, my unseeing glance happens to meet the eye of a middle-aged woman holding a box. She smiles at me. In the post office. I smile back. But she's caught me so unawares, I feel like I just sort of flashed my teeth at her, the way chimpanzees do when they're really pissed.
Driving out of the parking lot after getting my stamps, I practice smiling--not as a response to great pleasure or humor, but as a normal social reflex. I'm a happy person. I can do this. It makes my face feel weird.