birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Stranger Things

Most everything about New York is quick, screaming or tense. A plane landing at LaGuardia better get it right the first time in that busy, short strip of asphalt, brakes and tires screeching to avoid the black ocean waving at the end of the runway. As soon as tires are down, guards are up, everyone leaping into watch-watching and go-go-go action. It’s a race on the ground, a race to the top, a race just for racing’s sake. Sidewalks in Midtown are a comical study in the serious, monochromatic sea of walkers, black on black on black, with an occasional spot of charcoal gray. There must be an unspoken rule to keep your head up and eyes glazed, focused on nothing and no one in the distance. Then right in the middle of the fray, like a salmon swimming upstream, is me. Warm in my chestnut tweed overcoat, chosen at my mother’s insistence that I’m “an Autumn, and the best color palette is fall colors to complement fair skin tone and copper hair.” She’s also taught me to smile and be nice to people, a behavior so ingrained that I can’t turn it off, even in the stoic gloom of Manhattan mandates. You’d think I had three eyes or a For Sale sign on my forehead for all of the stares, leers or crude sneers. It took all of two business trips out of fifty to wipe it from my face, replaced with their shield of zombie indifference.

That’s not to say people aren’t happy in New York, or that people aren’t kind. But the facial facade of fierceness is thick, and the initial chip on the shoulder is thicker. Try getting into a meeting that you’ve already gotten, introducing yourself to the lobby desk warrior. “What’s your title?” is jabbed at you, outranking “what’s your name?” The ladder-climbing, size-up game is strong. And the push to push others down to rise up is played often. If they deem you important enough to actually keep the meeting, you might be greeted with “I had fifteen, but now it’s only twelve. Sorry, but that’s my day,” said in feigned apology, full of puffed dominance. It’s actually comical, if you step back with perspective of how that same meeting might go off the island, say, in my small farming town.

There’d be hugs at reception, or clucks and smiles of approval. There’d be twenty minutes of “how’ve you been? How’s your mama?” and “are you going to the potluck on Wednesday night?” When you finally get to the person you came to see, you’d do that all over again. And hopefully, your request for a loan or updated deed, whatever formal business you had at hand, would be escorted through a complicated process with ease, simply because they know your family or sympathize with your need. Hungry after that morning of business talk? Head to the diner, or to the Dairy Queen. Between the two options, you’ll find the same family-style tables where everyone sits together and speaks of the day. It starts with the weather (what everyone lives by) and may never get much deeper, but it is. There’s always a seat and you’d be a fish out of water if you wanted to eat solo, in silence, with headphones and a protective gloom.

Both are survival skills based on the environment, necessary to navigate the day with our soft parts intact. And I’ve no doubt seen the warm, welcoming side of Manhattanites too, mainly after we discover where they’re really from (as hardly anyone hails from Manhattan) and we commiserate on the crazy people we saw on the subway that day. The difference, though, is the armor and antics one needs to navigate a sea of strangers, versus never meeting a stranger in my small hometown.


Futzing Around