When my old friend Rob calls us from New York City, he always asks, “But what do you do out there?” As if everyone who doesn’t live in Manhattan lives on a farm in the middle of flyover country where you have to pump your water by hand and use an outhouse. Living in a small town would be his worst nightmare, because what he really means by “What do you do out there?” is “Where do you shop?”
“Doing something,” to me, means mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, stacking the wood, tending the garden, fixing the house, cleaning the gutters, getting the storm windows ready, jawing with the neighbors about how strange the weather has been. To Rob it means buying things.
While Rob has tens of thousands more neighbors than I do, he doesn’t know any of them and you wouldn’t need your toes to count his friends. He lives in a tiny, wildly expensive apartment in an elevator building with a doorman. His cleaning person comes in every Tuesday. His only household chore is writing a check for the rent once a month. When he’s not working, he’s shopping. His closets are full of expensive suits and ties from fancy haberdashers. He would be appalled by the 10-year-old dark suit from J.C. Penney that I wear to weddings and funerals. Everything else I own comes from what Sue calls “The Gutter Cleaning Collection.”
“What is there to do?” I answer him. “Plenty. We go into town and watch them put the mail in the boxes. ‘Course we’d have to get there before 10. What time do you get up nowadays? Around noon? They’re having a sale on sump pumps down at the Feed and Seed, and we don’t want to miss that. Doug’s having his septic system pumped on Saturday. That’ll be something to see. Then we all stand around and wait for the latest news from New York on the noon stage.” I could almost hear him roll his eyes.
“Well, what did you do last night?” I asked him.
“Stayed home and watched TV.”
“And like 85 percent of America, so did we,” I said. “The other 15 percent were on Facebook. You want to know the difference between watching TV at our house and watching TV in your apartment?”
“Thirty-five hundred dollars a month, plus utilities. If you were going to Broadway musicals every night, and eating at the hottest restaurants and then nightclubbing with B-list celebrities, I could see living in Manhattan. But if you’re staying home most nights watching TV, you could do that anywhere. Sure, you make Manhattan money, but you’ll spend more than you make.
“On my way to work in Manhattan,” I continued, “I would walk past shops that sold $10,000 watches, shops that sold $600 shoes, shops that sold $20,000 dresses. What do we do out here? I don’t know, but I sure don’t need a $600 pair of shoes to do it in.”
“Don’t you miss anything about the city?” Rob asked.
“Plenty. I miss the smell of slightly rotten garbage in the morning, I miss the sound of jackhammers, I miss alternate-side-of-the-street parking, I miss gum-paved sidewalks, I miss panhandlers, I miss dog walkers, I miss spending 20 minutes trying to get a taxi in the rain.” I think Rob had hung up when I got to “parking.”
Since we escaped from the big city, I would love to say I’ve discovered that the most beautiful things in the world are the wildflowers in the spring, the sight of tiny, spotted fawns crossing our lawn and the smell of freshly mowed grass. But they are not. The most beautiful thing in the world is hearing that they’re declaring tomorrow another “Gridlock Alert Day” in the city. There’s just something about the mental picture a junior exec sitting in a new $88,000 Mercedes going absolutely nowhere that never fails to cheer me up.
Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life,” “Baby’s First Tattoo” and “Now in Paperback.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.